2nd February 2020 – (Hong Kong) On Friday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam rejected the call to close its Chinese border despite pressure from the local community and she expressed that it would be discriminatory to shun its immigration doors to mainland Chinese. However, the government only promised to tighten its restrictions on visitors originating from Hubei province by putting them under quarantine. The government has also closed down some of the boundary control points, including the West Kowloon Station of the Express Rail Link. They are now looking into the number of visitors and analysing the numbers, so as to see if there is a need to change the strategy and do something further. Meanwhile, Hongkongers are advised not to travel to mainland China.
However, pressure continues to mount on the government to give in as 8,478 frontline medical staff from HA Employees Alliance (which has a total 18,000 members) have pledged to go on strike from tomorrow onwards. Cabin crew from Cathay Pacific also threatened to go on strike if the company does not stop all their flights to China to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
The Secretary for Food and Health, Professor Sophia Chan mentioned in a media briefing yesterday that she was aware of the impending strike next week. This would affect the government’s healthcare system and also affect the services of the Hospital Authority to the people, especially amidst a new virus situation. Therefore, she would like to appeal to all healthcare workers to stay united to combat the epidemic.
Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist from Hong Kong University expressed again in a radio interview today that if there are proven cases of Hong Kongers infected with novel coronavirus with no recent travel history, this means that the transmission within the community has started. According to him, it is unacceptable that 40,000 to 50,000 people still cross the border every day. Because Hong Kong is very close to the Mainland, the anti-epidemic measures must be different from other regions. If a local infection case does occur in Hong Kong, then the city may very likely become another Wuhan in a few months.
Italy’s government announced on Friday that it was suspending all flights from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan from 2nd February until 28th April after it confirmed two cases of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV). Kuwait and North Korea also ban visitors from China and Hong Kong. United Airlines and American Airlines also suspended all their flights to and from with immediate effect. Air India cancelled direct flights from Delhi and Mumbai to Shanghai until 14th February and it also cut its daily flights to Hong Kong to three times a week in the same period.
Meanwhile, Vietnam reversed its decision to ban Hong Kong flights yesterday evening after reassurance from Hong Kong Civil Aviation Authority. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has decided to impose a temporary travel ban on all travellers coming from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading. A 44-year-old mainland Chinese, the second patient detected with the virus was pronounced deceased in the Philippines, he became the first patient to die outside China.
In Hong Kong, an 80-year-old from Kwai Chung was confirmed with the infection of novel coronavirus yesterday. He went on a cruise with his two daughters in Japan and developed symptoms of cough and fever for one week. However, the man stopped by in mainland for a few hours on 10th January via Lo Wu Checkpoint before flying to Tokyo from Hong Kong on 17th January. He then boarded a cruise on 20th January before reaching Kai Tak Cruise Terminal in Hong Kong five days later. Centre for Health Protection has confirmed the patient as the 14th novel coronavirus case in Hong Kong. The total number of infection may escalate quickly as his two daughters may also be infected.
Hong Kong and Macau are both parts of China, hence, from a political viewpoint, it is discriminatory for the Hong Kong/Macau government to close their borders with China completely. However, Hong Kong is not part of the rest world and the rest of the world may close their borders with Hong Kong and Macau as long as mainland Chinese and tourists are still allowed to cross-border travel freely.
The ‘One Country, Two Systems’ may apply to Hong Kong when it comes to safeguarding the freedom of Hongkongers but ironically, in the ongoing fight against the epidemic, Hong Kong, Macau and China must stay as ONE COUNTRY.
Nevertheless, the World Health Organization cautioned on Friday that closing borders was probably ineffective in halting the transmission of the deadly Wuhan coronavirus and could even accelerate its spread.
“If you close official border crossings, you can “lose track of people and cannot monitor (their movement) anymore”, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva.
As the virus has proven to be highly contagious, once the transmission has reached amongst people in the community, Hong Kong may well become the next Wuhan. At the moment, anyone who is not from the epicentre i.e. Hubei Province can still enter Hong Kong or Macau freely. It is very hard to detect carriers of the virus as the incubation period can last up to 14 days. According to Gabriel Matthew Leung, a clinician and a public health authority who is also the Dean of the Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine of the University of Hong Kong, basic reproduction rate of the novel coronavirus has increased to 2.13 times and the epidemic will double every 6.2 days. Leung predicts that the epidemic will peak in Chongqing, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen in April and May.
Airlines around the world may slowly suspend their flights to Hong Kong if the situation is not handled delicately as the pressure is on not just the Hong Kong/Macau government but also the Chinese government. If the total number of affected cases continue to rise exponentially, Hong Kong will be hit by a detrimental impact far worse than the effects of the pro-democracy protests if Hong Kong is temporarily suspended as a major international travel hub in the Asia Pacific region. Businesses, in particular, F&B industry, retailers, hoteliers and tourism-related industry will be acutely pummelled in the next 6 – 12 months and the fall in the property market will continue to widen to 10% within a year.
Reality bites but then again, the hands are tied for the Hong Kong government at present. We can only hope that the coronavirus epidemic will not reach a tipping point and at this critical moment, everyone should stay united to fight against the virus.