Hong Kong's soaring death toll had seen a crunch in the city's coffins supply. Photo: Twitter

Hong Kong is trying to import coffins from mainland China as the number of deaths from Covid-19 hits record levels and infection numbers surge.

As of Thursday, the total number of Covid cases identified in the Asian financial hub reached nearly one million, while 4,923 deaths have been recorded since the fifth epidemic wave started last December.

The University of Hong Kong estimated that 3.58 million people, or 48% of Hong Kong’s population, had been infected as of Monday.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Thursday that the government would unveil a road map on Sunday or Monday showing how Hong Kong could return to normal life. She said she knew Hong Kong people’s tolerance for anti-epidemic rules was fading while financial institutions were also losing patience.

Unlike the dozens of officials in Guangdong and Jilin provinces who were removed for failing to contain the virus, Lam may keep her position for some time as Beijing may further postpone the election for the Chief Executive position, which had previously been pushed back from March 27 to May 8.

Since the fifth epidemic wave hit Hong Kong, about 95% of 800 elderly care homes have reported virus outbreaks. In early March, only 30.48% of Hong Kong people aged over 80 had been vaccinated with two doses, according to official data.

On Wednesday, the figure rose to 36.79%, far below the ideal level of 80-90%.

A total of 2,526 people who lived in elderly care homes have died during the fifth epidemic wave, accounting for 55% of the 4,636 deaths in Hong Kong as of the end of Tuesday.

A sign on a street in Hong Kong aimed at social distancing. Photo: WikiCommons

Deaths per million

Over the week ended Tuesday, 1,978 infected with Covid died in Hong Kong, compared with 1,697 a week earlier. That means the number of deaths per million in seven days increased to 264 from 226 the previous week.

According to Statista.com, the death rate was 8.04 in the United States, 27.19 in South Korea, 13.45 in Germany and 9.05 in the United Kingdom for the same period. In Eastern Europe, the figures ranged between 30 and 40.

The epidemic in Hong Kong could have spread to neighboring Shenzhen since mid-February, forcing the hub for many high-technology companies including Tencent, Huawei and Foxconn to lock down for mandatory tests this week. Dongguan, a nearby manufacturing city, was also locked down this week.

On Tuesday, Kwok Hoi-bong, the president of the Funeral Business Association, said Hong Kong would run out of coffins within days as there were only a few hundred left in the city. Kwok urged the government to categorize coffins as necessities, similar to food and medicine, so they could be delivered to Hong Kong through special channels from Shenzhen.

On Wednesday, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) said it had moved to address the shortage of coffins. It said 360 coffins had arrived in Hong Kong by land and by sea over the past three days, while a further 730 were expected by sea on Friday.

Meanwhile, the FEHD said it held a refresher webinar for funeral businesses on the handling of bodies, with input from the Centre for Health Protection. This follows concerns from front-line funeral staff about the possibility of Covid infection.

Bags of bodies stored in a ward with patients at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in late February 2022. Photo: Facebook

Last Friday, several pictures were posted on a Facebook page showing many body bags stored in a hospital’s wards next to patients. The administrator of the Facebook page said the pictures were taken at Queen Elizabeth Hospital in late February. The Hospital Authority later apologized for the incident.

As Hong Kong students start their summer holidays between March 17 and April 17, a growing number have decided with their parents to leave Hong Kong, intensifying the exodus from the city.

Record numbers leave

In the first 16 days of March, 53,882 people left Hong Kong while only 8,229 arrived in the city, according to the immigration department. A net outflow of 45,653 people was recorded during the period, compared with 33,737 in the same period of February.

A net outflow of 132,000 people, or 1.8% of the population, has been recorded in Hong Kong so far this year.

On Thursday, three University of Hong Kong microbiologists, including government adviser Yuen Kwok-yung, urged the government to make a roadmap for returning to normal life.

In an article published in the Ming Pao Daily on Thursday, the three medical experts said close contacts of those infected should be allowed to resume work as long as they tested negative for Covid every morning. They said flight bans should be lifted, while fully vaccinated Hongkongers should be allowed to self-isolate at home when returning to the city.

They said the government could relax social distancing measures when the vaccination rate exceeded 95%, hopefully by summertime, but at the same time the vaccine mandate should be expanded to cover more places including public transport.

Lam said on Thursday she would update the public on Sunday or Monday about the future direction of all the measures, including flight bans, the quarantine period for arrivals, citywide testing, school resumption and social distancing measures.

“I have a very strong feeling that people’s tolerance is fading. Some of our financial institutions are losing patience about this sort of isolated status of Hong Kong,” she said.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam attends a news conference on the government’s strategy for vaccinations in a file photo. Photo: AFP

In mid-February, Hong Kong officials were ordered by Beijing to follow China’s “zero Covid” policy, instead of the West’s “living with the virus” strategy. The order disrupted the government’s plan to gradually reopen to the world.

Last week, Beijing seemed to have accepted the reality that mainland measures were no longer useful for containing the virus in Hong Kong. The city is now waiting for the epidemic to die down naturally in the coming months.

On Wednesday, Tam Yiu-chung, the sole Hong Kong representative in the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, said if the Chief Executive election is postponed again, Beijing would have to extend the term of the current administration in accordance with the Chinese Constitution and Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

Some political commentators had previously said the Chief Executive election could be pushed back by six months from June 30 as the political struggle in Beijing would remain intense before the Communist Party’s 20th National Congress in November.

Read: Who’s to blame for Hong Kong’s Covid catastrophe?

Follow Jeff Pao on Twitter at @jeffpao3