The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership in Beijing has told Hong Kong it must get the current current COVID-19 outbreak under control within the next two months, ahead of the 25th anniversary of the city’s handover to Chinese rule on July 1, according to a CCP-adjacent commentator.
Lu Wenduan, vice chairman of the All-China Federation of Returned Overseas Chinese, which is part of the CCP’s United Front Work Department, said in a commentary in Hong Kong’s Ming Pao newspaper that CCP leader Xi Jinping wants a zero-COVID outcome by the time the celebrations begin.
Judging from recent comments from Xia Baolong, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office under China’s cabinet, the State Council, Xi doesn’t want incumbent Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to serve another term in office if she can’t achieve that goal.
“As long as the epidemic is controlled within the next two months, Hong Kong can have a normal and successful election for chief executive,” Lu wrote.
Ivan Choy, senior politics lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), said the 25th anniversary of the handover is a landmark date for Beijing, and comes two years after the CCP imposed a draconian national security law on Hong Kong, rewrote the city’s electoral rules to ensure opposition voices were excluded, forced the closure of pro-democracy media outlets and arrested dozens of former lawmakers and opposition activists for “subversion.”
“They have put so much effort into bringing in the national security law and on ‘improving’ the electoral system, that it will be hard to justify if Hong Kong is even less stable than it was before,” Choy told RFA.
“So they want to ensure Hong Kong is stable … as well as offering some kind of justification to the outside world on the 25th anniversary,” he said.
Hong Kong current affairs commentator Johnny Lau said it will be hard for the CCP to claim that Hong Kong is a united city under the new regime if it is still reeling from the current wave of COVID-19 infections, which has filled up the city’s public hospitals and prompted calls from pro-Beijing commentators for mass, compulsory testing aided by supplies and experts from mainland China.
But Beijing is still willing to allow some quarter to Hong Kong officials, rather than firing them for failing to achieve zero-COVID as has happened in mainland Chinese cities.
“The way China’s political culture works, they won’t want to focus on the way certain officials have handled the crisis at the expense of focusing on external forces,” Lau said, in a reference to Beijing’s blaming of the 2019 protest movement on infiltration by “hostile foreign forces.”
“The more these two ideas are kept separate, the better,” he said. “It’s not really a question of official accountability in Hong Kong.”
No triage system
Hong Kong on Monday reported a further 7,533 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including the death of an 11-month-old baby.
According to the Hospital Authority, its public hospitals are currently at 89 percent on average, with an occupancy rate of 109 percent at the Caritas Hospital, 102 percent at Tseung Kwan O Hospital and 100 percent occupancy rate at two other public hospitals.
While many of the outdoor holding areas, where patients were left waiting for hours in parking lots under emergency blankets pending test results or triage, have now disappeared, some outdoor lines were still being photographed on Monday.
Hospital Authority Employees Alliance chairman David Chan said hospitals remain short-staffed, and many lack an effective triage system for COVID-19 patients.
“There are many members of the general public who don’t know how to tell if they have mild or severe illness, and there isn’t enough information about that,” Chan told RFA. “They are saying that people with mild illness can stay home, but a lot of people don’t know this.”
“Some people just go straight to hospital for treatment the moment they get a positive test result.”
But he said the 1,000 or so place available at private clinics were nowhere near enough to meet demand for outpatient appointments.
There is also a growing issue with nosocomial infections — those acquired in hospital — according to Edmund Lam, a family doctor who serves on the Scientific Committee on Vaccine Preventable Diseases.
“If private hospitals are able to provide negative pressure wards or better air circulation, for example, in outpatient clinics where patients don’t need to get admitted to hospital, then there will be a reduction in emergency room infections and community transmissions,” he said.
Postponing non-urgent surgeries
Ho Siu-wai, chairman of the Federation of Private Hospitals, said private hospitals are postponing non-urgent surgeries and using their resources to see COVID-19 patients instead.
The Hong Kong government has reopened the AsiaWorld-Expo venue as a community treatment facility, providing about 1,000 beds, while commissioning the China State Construction Group to build a total of 10,000 beds in community isolation and treatment facilities in Penny’s Bay and on the former Kai Tak airport site to receive patients with mild or asymptomatic infections.
Lam announced on Saturday that she will also requisition newly completed public housing, rent hotels and renovate public leisure and sports facilities, to yield a further 20,000 beds and isolation facilities.
Quarantine facilities are already running at around 4,400 hotel rooms in the Dorsett Tsuen Wan, iclub Ma Tau Wai Hotel, iclub Fortress Hill Hotel and Regal Oriental hotels, with a further 20,000 hotel rooms likely to become available for community quarantine measures at a later date.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Friday announced the postponement of elections for the city’s top job after Xi told her government to throw all of its resources at pursuing a “zero-COVID” strategy, as a wave of the omicron variant of COVID-19 infections started to take its toll.
Nominations had been slated to begin on Feb. 20 for the March 27 election, which has now been postponed to May 8, to enable her administration to “focus on the epidemic,” Lam said.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.