China coronavirus: HK and mainland passengers descend on West Kowloon station ahead of widespread suspensions to cross-border travel

31-Jan-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Passengers rushed to catch the last high-speed trains between Hong Kong and mainland China on Wednesday, ahead of the city government’s shutdown of West Kowloon station and other parts of the cross-border travel network to contain the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus.

The closure of two railways and halving the number of flights serving mainland China were among the emergency measures imposed by the Hong Kong administration earlier this week that take effect from midnight on Thursday.

Many of those entering and leaving the West Kowloon terminus had been forced to change their travel plans, fearing being stranded in the wrong part of the country amid the threat of further border closures.

The station on Wednesday was limited to three entrances and guarded by railway staff and small groups of riot police.

One staff member said only one-way tickets departing from Hong Kong were being sold before the station effectively shuts down overnight.

“It’s quite scary,” said January Zhang, 30, a native of Guangdong province in southern China who works in Hong Kong’s finance industry.

“I was supposed to come back to Hong Kong tomorrow, but after hearing the news of the closure I rushed back this morning.”

The city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced on Tuesday that travel between Hong Kong and mainland China would be drastically reduced to limit the flow of people into the city from the mainland, where all the fatalities from the virus have been recorded.

The measures include closing six border crossings, halving the number of flights to and from mainland China, suspending the MTR’s intercity services, and closing West Kowloon station, which serves the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong Express Rail Link.

More than 6,000 people around the world had been infected with the virus by Wednesday afternoon, and 132 had died, all of them mainland Chinese citizens.

Countries from Germany to Vietnam have reported cases of the virus, which can cause pneumonia-like symptoms and is capable of spreading between humans.

At least six of the 10 patients in Hong Kong confirmed as infected reportedly travelled on the high-speed railway from the mainland.

West Kowloon was the first station to impose self-declaration measures, and passengers on Wednesday said they had filled in the health forms when leaving and entering mainland China and Hong Kong.

Qiyun Zhang, 50, who was waiting for an afternoon train to her hometown of Shantou in Guangdong, said she had planned to spend a few days in Hong Kong as part of her layover from London.

“We wanted to stay for some more days, but we were afraid we couldn’t go back to the mainland,” she said.

Zhang, who was travelling with her daughter, said the partial border closure seemed necessary, despite accusations it discriminated against mainlanders. “There have to be special measures in special times,” she said.

Critics argued the closed checkpoints would do little to stem cross-border traffic.

The six checkpoints to be closed handled 8.9 per cent of cross-border travellers from Friday to Monday, and accounted for only 7.6 per cent of the passenger flow in 2018.

The three largest border crossings that are remaining open Lo Wu, Lok Ma Chau and Hong Kong International Airport handled 85 million, 56 million and 53 million travellers respectively in 2018.

But Lam insisted that a total closure was unwarranted, saying Hongkongers accounted for 67 per cent of all the cross-border travel in the first 26 days of January, while mainlanders made up only 26 per cent.

Dr Ho Pak-leung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said a full border closure would be the “ideal situation”.

Demonstrators demanding a full travel ban between the mainland and Hong Kong targeted a section of the city’s MTR system on Wednesday, but the action fell far short of the citywide strike activists had called for online.

Protesters briefly disrupted the city’s East Rail line, which runs from Hung Hom in Kowloon to the border with Shenzhen, by throwing objects onto the tracks.

On Tuesday, Lam said her government would charge those coronavirus patients who did not live in Hong Kong the full medical costs of hospital treatment in the city, in response to a backlash over free care.

Garfield Ma, a Hongkonger in his late 20s who was visiting relatives in Shenzhen, said closing the border might help slow the virus’ spread to Hong Kong, but asking for payment from those infected with the virus, whether they were from the mainland or not, discriminated against those who could not afford it.

“It’s a serious concern for the system. People might not take themselves to the hospital,” said Ma, who works in financial services.

For some, the widespread travel closures reflected this year’s dampened festivities for the Lunar New Year across China.

A Hong Kong resident who gave her first name as Soo said she was at home with relatives for her entire stay in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province.

“I cancelled visits. No going to the movies, no karaoke,” she said.

Soo planned to stay until next Monday, she said, before heading back to Hong Kong when she heard the border would be partially shut.


Category: Hong Kong

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