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Hong Kong partially closes border with Mainland China as virus deaths mount

Hong Kong - China border fence (Joe Jones/Flickr)
January 29, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Authorities in Hong Kong on Tuesday shut down rail connections from mainland China on Tuesday as the number of deaths in the Wuhan coronavirus epidemic passed 100.

Trains are no longer running on express routes connecting Hong Kong to neighboring cities in mainland China, nor on the high-speed rail line to West Kowloon station, the city’s government told a news conference.

Flights coming in from mainland Chinese cities will be cut by around half, while all cross-boundary ferry services between Hong Kong and mainland China are suspended, it said.

The number of confirmed cases of illness caused by the novel coronavirus, officially termed nCoV-2019 (Wuhan) by the World Health Organization (WHO), rose to 4,409 in China on Tuesday, with the majority still clustered in Hubei, according to a website set up by researchers at Johns Hopkins University to track the epidemic.

The number of deaths in the epidemic rose to 107, with a handful of confirmed cases reported in Australia, Singapore, Taiwan, the United States, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea.

Bus services plying cross-border routes including across the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macao Bridge will be reduced, in a bid to “significantly reduce the flow of people” coming from mainland China into Hong Kong, chief executive Carrie Lam told reporters.

The ruling Chinese Communist Party said it would no longer issue visitor passes to Chinese nationals wishing to visit Hong Kong.

While post-handover Hong Kong was promised control of its own borders under the terms of the “one country, two systems” framework, commentators have noted that it has no meaningful way to refuse entry to residents of mainland China once a permit has been issued.

Government hospitals in the city will also start charging people full treatment fees if they don’t have residency status or a valid employment visa, the government said, in a bid to discourage healthcare tourism by people infected with the Wuhan coronavirus.

Residents of the central Chinese province of Hubei, whose capital Wuhan has been at the epicenter of the epidemic, have been restricted from entering Hong Kong since Jan. 27, although hundreds are believed to have already done so, and will likely be contacted for checkups by hospitals.

No need for a total closure of Hong Kong

But Lam said there was no need for a total closure of the city’s borders.

“The number of visitors from mainland China has greatly reduced, and 70 percent of those going through immigration control are Hong Kong residents,” Lam said. “Why then would we shut down the borders and prevent Hongkongers from coming and going?”

“There are a lot of Hong Kong people in mainland China or other places right now: should we close the borders and tell them they’re not welcome to come here?”

Lam said the government had dropped plans to use a newly built public housing project as a quarantine site for people who had been in contacted with known cases of the Wuhan virus, but denied it was in response to an arson attack on the empty building by protesters from nearby residential areas, who said it was an inappropriate site for a quarantine camp.

The Hong Kong authorities are concerned over a shortage of surgical masks, and are trying to source more supplies internationally, she said.

Hong Kong has eight confirmed cases to date, with the same number reported in Thailand.

France has reported three known cases and Vietnam two, while single cases have been confirmed in Cambodia, Canada, Germany, the Ivory Coast, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

The WHO has revised its assessment of the level of threat posed by the coronavirus outbreak from medium to high for the Asia Pacific region, and maintained its assessment of “very high” for China.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met with President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Tuesday to discuss ways to manage the epidemic.

‘We cannot let the devil hide’

Xi told Tedros: “The virus is a devil and we cannot let the devil hide,” according to state broadcaster CCTV.

“China will strengthen international cooperation and welcomes the WHO participation in virus prevention … We believe that the WHO an international community will give a calm, objective and rational assessment of the virus and China is confident of winning the battle against the virus,” Xi was quoted as saying.

A month into the coronavirus epidemic, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has sparked an unprecedented level of public criticism on the country’s tightly controlled internet over its handling of the biggest public health crisis since the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) epidemic left hundreds dead in 2002-2003.

A resident of Wuhan who gave only his surname Ding said the local government hadn’t taken enough steps to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including warning local residents about a public health emergency in their backyard.

He said local residents also have no way of informing the authorities of the situation on the ground in a quarantined city of 11 million.

“I tried calling the mayor’s helpline but I couldn’t get through; there was just a computerized message, no member of staff,” Ding said. “If you try calling 110 for an ambulance you can’t get through either.”

“You can’t get through on any of the numbers listed for supermarkets online even if you can find them, so actually we have no way to tell anybody anything,” he said. “The government isn’t doing anything.”

“They didn’t hand out face masks [as promised] … and you can’t get the good ones anywhere,” Ding said. “You can only find the regular ones.”

“We’re all going crazy because all we can do when we’ve … finished work is to go home,” he said.

Wuhan resident Li Yuqin said many people were sick in her district, but were turned away from overwhelmed hospitals, and are left to fend for themselves in the community, with no treatment or testing for the coronavirus.

“They tried a bunch of hospitals a few times, including Zhongnan Hospital, Wuhan People’s Hospital, and No. 4 Hospital, but they all said there were no beds,” Li told RFA.

‘Marginalization of officials with know-how’

A video circulating on social media showed a woman in Wuhan calling the hospital to pick up a 62-year-old patient Zhou Jiqing who was diagnosed with the coronavirus but had been turned away by the hospital.

“There are a lot of these cases now, and there aren’t any [beds],” a member of staff at one hospital is heard telling the woman in the video clip.

Wu Qiang, former politics lecturer at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University, said a taskforce set up to manage the epidemic under premier Li Keqiang was unlikely to be able to achieve much.

“Can this small committee fully mobilize everyone do a professional job of containing the epidemic? I doubt it,” Wu told RFA. “They are mainly party officials and bureaucrats, and they are not led by public health experts.”

“The key thing to note about this committee is the lack of public health technicians.”

Chinese dissident Wang Aizhong said China doesn’t lack public health expertise, but the political environment has skewed sharply away from technical know-how since Xi Jinping came to power.

“[We see instead] an emphasis on political priorities and the marginalization of officials with know-how,” Wang said. “We can see the consequences of this in the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic.”

“It shows a lack of professionalism and confusion, [which] is obviously the inevitable result of the current political climate,” Wang said.