Coronavirus: at least 102 Hongkongers on Diamond Princess cruise in Japan to be brought home on chartered flight

21-Feb-2020 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

At least 102 Hongkongers quarantined for more than two weeks on board the coronavirus-stricken cruise ship Diamond Princess in Japan were set to be brought home on a chartered flight early on Thursday morning, but there was no word on more than 200 others still trapped by the biggest outbreak of Covid-19 outside mainland China.

The scramble to evacuate them from the cruise ship came as the city reported its second coronavirus death an elderly patient with underlying health issues.

While Hong Kong has confirmed 65 infections so far, the Covid-19 death toll on the mainland has surged past 2,000 and the number of cases now stands at almost 74,200.

In the early hours of Thursday, Hong Kong director of Immigration Erick Tsang Kwok-wai said at Tokyo’s Haneda airport that 102 Hongkongers from the ship were boarding the first arranged flight home.

Keeping those who have not been infected in this dumpster is a big loophole

Alan Lam, Hong Kong passenger

“We will try to allow as many people as we can to board the flight and return to Hong Kong, and some of them who earlier refused the offer had changed their minds,” Tsang said.

“The number is much more than the 45 we expected originally… And therefore, the flight will be delayed as we want to bring home as many people as we can tonight.”

Tsang added that another chartered flight on Thursday evening would be arranged.

At 1.40am Japan time, the first batch of Hongkongers from the Diamond Princess arrived at Haneda airport.

With 53 out of 352 Hongkongers on board the Diamond Princess confirmed to be infected, the Hong Kong government earlier expressed impatience with the pace of processing by Japanese authorities who were prioritising screening according to age rather than nationality.

Secretary for Security John Lee Ka-chiu on Wednesday said the Japanese government had yet to respond to requests for more information.

“How many Hong Kong residents have tested positive and how many negative? How many are regarded as close contacts who may have to continue to stay in Japan? How many, if they are required to be quarantined, will be quarantined on the ship or on land?” he said.

Lee urged Japan to prioritise the departure of the city’s residents, saying the government wanted to bring back all Hong Kong passengers by Thursday at the latest.

He acknowledged that all foreign governments would be pressing the same demand, but insisted the number of Hongkongers on board justified their prioritisation.

“We have a large number, so it is in everybody’s interest that priority is given to Hong Kong residents, so that they can come back as early as possible,” he said.

Undersecretary for Security Sonny Au Chi-kwong, who was in Japan to oversee the evacuation, earlier said 17 Hongkongers that were already cleared to leave did not want to take the government-chartered flights home and planned to travel by their own means. Sixteen others still awaiting clearance had told the Hong Kong government they would not take charted flights home either.

It was unclear how many of them later changed their minds and became part of the 102-passenger group.

Meanwhile, stranded passengers such as dentist Alan Lam, 56, were desperate to leave and frustrated by the arrangements.

“I am very angry at how this is being handled by the cruise company and the Japanese government,” Lam said. “Keeping those who have not been infected in this dumpster is a big loophole.”

Lam said he was still waiting for his coronavirus test result but expected it to be negative, otherwise he would have been taken to hospital already.

The Diamond Princess has been quarantined off the port of Yokohama since February 4, and as of Wednesday night, 621 out of 3,600 passengers were confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus.

Those due to take the first Hong Kong-chartered flight home were to be transported by coach to Haneda airport, from where they would depart at 1.45am local time on Thursday, the Chinese embassy said earlier. No mainland Chinese or Macau residents would be on the flight.

The first batch left the ship just before 10pm Hong Kong time on Wednesday and boarded waiting shuttle buses, while dozens of health, immigration and security staff from the city were there to help.

Song Ruan, deputy commissioner of Beijing’s foreign ministry office in Hong Kong, and Zhan Kongchao, China’s ambassador in Japan were also at the port.

A smaller group of passengers, all aged above 70, were at the airport earlier, as they had been moved from the cruise ship to a quarantine centre on Monday after being given the all-clear.

“I am really happy and lucky to be able to go home now,” one of them said, while waiting to board the flight. “Of course it is inconvenient that we have to be quarantined for another 14 days after returning, but I understand that this is for my own good as well as for the public.”

Another passenger said: “I was worried that I would get infected on the cruise. I could hardly sleep every night in the past two weeks.”

Upon landing in Hong Kong, they would be taken directly from the airport apron to the empty Chun Yeung public housing estate in Fo Tan for a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

Two men in Hong Kong, whose mothers on board the cruise ship had been ordered to remain under quarantine, urged the government to bring them home as well, saying they were running out of medication and there was a higher chance of getting infected if they stayed on in worsening sanitary conditions.

The two men’s fathers had been hospitalised after testing positive, they said, and were sharing a ward with four other infected Japanese patients, with no partitions between their beds and forced to share a single toilet.

The two elderly Hongkongers were already chronic heart patients, but the Japanese hospital did not have the medication they needed, the sons said.

Pro-establishment lawmaker Vincent Cheng Wing-shun, who was helping the Hongkongers stranded in Yokohama, said those infected had been sent to six-to-eight hospitals.

“Different hospitals have different practices,” Cheng said after visiting two of the facilities.

“Although the conditions of the patients are not serious, the hospitals I approached mainly asked them to wait or did some check-ups without prescribing medicine to treat the disease,” he continued.

“Patients can only wait, without much to do. Their families are not allowed to visit them. They are very worried about how they will be handled.”

Professor Kentaro Iwata, a specialist in infectious diseases at Kobe University Hospital, blasted Japan’s handling of the crisis after he saw conditions on board the cruise ship.

“It was completely chaotic. I was so scared of getting Covid-19, because there was no way to tell where the virus was,” he said in a YouTube video, noting there was no distinction between infected and virus-free zones on board the ship.

Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan of Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection said passengers allowed to leave the ship who chose to return home on their own would still be required to undergo the mandatory two-week quarantine.

“We treat the ship as an infected area. So, if they return to Hong Kong within 14 days of the required quarantine period, they should be subject to the quarantine requirement. If we know their names or identities, we should be able to intercept them at the border and send them for quarantine,” Dr Chuang said.

Hongkongers were also caught up in a coronavirus drama as another cruise ship, the Westerdam, recently docked in Cambodia after being turned away by five countries because of fears that someone on board might be infected.

Dr Chuang cited information from the ship operator and Hong Kong immigration authorities that 36 Hongkongers had been on board. Eighteen of them had returned to Hong Kong, showing no symptoms, and four were still in Cambodia, while authorities were contacting the rest.

Westerdam passengers disembarked in the city of Sihanoukville last week, amid assurances the ship was free of the coronavirus, but an American passenger tested positive later.

The discovery has left international health authorities scrambling to track passengers for fear that their possible exposure to the virus would escalate the international spread of the disease.


Category: Hong Kong

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