Hong Kong’s top scientists on Tuesday urged the government to move on from China’s zero COVID strategy before the next outbreak, unless the financial hub wants to be a “closed port forever”.
Hong Kong used strict travel restrictions to keep the virus at bay for two years, but these have left the Asian global city increasingly isolated and a deadly omicron outbreak since January has led to an exodus of residents and businesses fleeing its growing list of restrictions.
The massive rise in cases has ravaged the city’s health system and left it with one of the highest COVID-19 death rates in the developed world, with the government facing criticism for failing to vaccinate its elderly population on time.
On Monday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced an easing of travel restrictions in April, but the government did not provide a comprehensive roadmap to exit the crisis beyond reducing quarantine periods. for inbound travelers and the opening of flight lanes.
“The last two months have been a very painful experience of loss for us and it does not allow us to wait,” senior epidemiologist Gabriel Leung, who leads a team of scientists working on the virus, told reporters on Tuesday.
Scientists estimate that around 4.4 million people in densely populated Hong Kong – or 60% of the population – have been infected so far during the omicron wave.
Official figures have recorded more than a million cases and nearly 6,000 deaths since January – mostly among the unvaccinated elderly population.
Leung, dean of the University of Hong Kong’s medical school and a government expert frequently cited by Lam, stressed the importance of getting vaccinated and getting stronger while saying Hong Kong must start living with the virus unless that there “remains a port closed forever”.
He added that endemicity is the “safest route because we don’t know if the next new variant is weaker or stronger than the ones we’ve seen.”
In line with China, where a zero COVID-19 strategy saw instant lockdowns imposed on millions of residents even after a handful of cases were detected, Hong Kong has maintained some of the toughest pandemic restrictions in the world.
Beijing began to reshape Hong Kong in its own authoritarian image following massive and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests in 2019, instituting a sweeping national security law to crush dissent.
Moving away from a zero-tolerance strategy would mean getting out of China’s way.
President Xi Jinping last week urged China to ‘stick’ to zero COVID-19 even as several cities forced tens of millions of residents to stay at home as cases peaked since the early days of the pandemic.