Hong Kong braces for muted end to 2020 as Covid-19 ravages the city

HONG KONG – Even with tightened measures to reign in the spread of Covid-19, Hong Kong gets no reprieve. The death toll is mounting as more clusters break out in different buildings, including the most recent one at a domestic helper dormitory.

Hong Kong officials are now under added pressure to act more swiftly in containing the coronavirus from ravaging the city.

As the territory braces for a gloomy Winter Solstice and Christmas, Dr Leung Chi Chiu of the Hong Kong Medical Association told The Straits Times on Wednesday (Dec 16) that the situation was “still critical”.

Daily infections might have dipped from over 100 to hover around 69 to 98 in the past five days, but a majority of those cases are local and officials have no clue as to their source, at least for a significant proportion of them.

More than 1,300 new cases of Covid-19 infection were recorded in the first two weeks of December. Of these, more than 1,200 were local cases and 34 per cent have not been traced to a source.

There are now more than 7,700 confirmed cases in the territory, including 123 deaths.

This week alone, six patients aged between 49 and 79 have died, prompting experts and officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam, to repeatedly urge the public to stay home and warn the younger population from being complacent.

On Monday, health officials raised concerns over a mini outbreak at a Tai Po dormitory for foreign domestic helpers after two maids who stayed there over the weekend were infected.

The next day, the government ordered people who have visited the dormitory in Fung Nin House in the past month to undergo a mandatory test. The order came after eight helpers and four members of a family linked to one of the maids were tested positive for Covid-19.

Foreign domestic helpers serve some 400,000 households in Hong Kong.

Said Dr Leung, an infectious diseases expert: “With emerging outbreaks involving different high-risk settings, including inside multi-storey buildings and poorly regulated hostels for foreign domestic helpers, there is no room for complacency.”

He added that colder weather in the coming festive period and the influx of returnees from Britain and other areas with worsening Covid-19 outbreaks remain major challenges for the city.

Chairman of the Hong Kong Employment Agencies Association Cheung Kit Man said in an interview with public broadcaster RTHK on Wednesday that, according to his estimates, there exist about 300 unlicensed dormitories for domestic helpers.

It would be difficult for the authorities to check who had stayed in these dormitories as there is no record, he said, adding that some helpers were allowed on their rest day to spend the night outside their employers’ houses.

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Also causing some alarm is a public housing estate in Wong Tai Sin. Residents in some units had to be evacuated on Monday on suspicion that the virus spread from the bathroom of an infected person’s flat to two other units.

This prompted experts to urge people to keep their kitchen or toilet windows shut before turning on the exhaust fan to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

But government advisor and respiratory medicine professor David Hui told RTHK on Tuesday (Dec 15) that there are fewer people out on the streets and he expects the daily infection rate to decline around Christmas as the effects of tightened rules start to show.

Last week, the authorities reinstated some of the strictest measures – previously rolled out four months ago – to gain control of the pandemic.

For a two-week period till Dec 23, dine-in services are stopped between 6pm and 4.59am the following day, with the cap on patrons per table during dine-in hours to remain at two – same as the cap on public gatherings.

Businesses such as gyms, sports centres, beauty and massage parlours have also been forced to close, along with an earlier order for bars and pubs to shut.

Mrs Lam has announced that the government will ask the Legislative Council to approve before Christmas a fourth round of anti-epidemic relief funds for businesses that are hardest hit.

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