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Hong Kong’s Completely Avoidable Covid Catastrophe

The city kept the pandemic at bay for two years. Why didn’t it take measures that would help in an inevitable outbreak—like an all-out campaign to vaccinate the elderly?

Patients wait outdoors for available beds at Hong Kong’s Princess Margaret Hospital on March 16. 

Patients wait outdoors for available beds at Hong Kong’s Princess Margaret Hospital on March 16. 

Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Around 8 p.m. one evening in late February, an elderly man in a Hong Kong nursing home began struggling to breathe. He wasn’t the only one who was ill. An unprecedented outbreak of Covid-19 was gathering pace, and roughly half of the facility’s 100 residents had already tested positive for the virus. Less than a third were fully vaccinated; even fewer had received a booster dose. Isolating the infected was impossible. Like most dwellings in the city of 7.4 million, the nursing home was cramped. Instead of a private room, each resident’s dedicated space was only big enough for a 2½-foot-wide bed, separated from neighbors by thin wooden dividers. As the man’s condition worsened, staff called an emergency hotline for help. According to Cheng Ching-fat, the secretary-general of a union representing nursing-home workers, they waited more than 10 hours before an ambulance arrived to bring the man to a hospital. He died on the way, one of more than 4,000 Hong Kongers age 80 and older who’ve succumbed to the virus in the past few months.

More than two years after Covid began spreading around the globe, Hong Kong is experiencing one of the deadliest outbreaks of the entire pandemic. It began early this year, when the omicron variant breached the Chinese territory’s ferocious quarantine system for inbound travelers, which had previously kept cases almost at zero. Soon it became clear that the authorities had done little to prepare for the possibility that the travel restrictions wouldn’t be enough. Within weeks, parts of the health-care system had effectively collapsed, and since January there have been about 5,600 fatalities. Although there are tentative signs that the worst may be over, right now more people are dying from Covid in Hong Kong, relative to population, than anywhere else in the world. For some, the situation has engendered a sort of dazed shock. How could a wealthy, sophisticated city, with a top-notch health-care system and ample time to learn from experiences elsewhere, get its response so wrong? “During the past two years the government has done nothing,” Cheng says. “It seems like it’s never come across to them that Hong Kong may face a serious outbreak.”