Coronavirus: Hongkongers in outbreak epicentre running low on medicine, masks and food, but government has no plans for flights out while lockdown continues

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

Frustrated Hongkongers stuck in the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in mainland China are running low on food, masks and medicines, but the government has no plans to bring them home before the lockdown in Hubei province has been lifted, the Post has learned.

The official assessment, according to two political sources, was that the government could not effectively gather more than 2,000 Hongkongers scattered across Hubei, and even if it managed to get them home there were not enough places to put the returnees in quarantine for 14 days.

“There are practical difficulties and also a potential backlash from society if a chartered flight was arranged to bring them back to Hong Kong,” said one of the sources with knowledge of the situation, noting that Hong Kong residents had protested against quarantine facilities being set up in their neighbourhood.

Businessman Joe Chan, his wife and their 10-year-old daughter are among those made to wait it out in Hubei, where cities including Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak, have been put under a complete lockdown for more than two weeks.

The 50-year-old brought his family back to his wife’s hometown Tianmen, a two-hour drive from Wuhan, on January 20. After Wuhan was locked down on January 23, the high-speed rail service from Tianmen to Shenzhen was also halted, making it impossible for the family to leave.

There have been more than 37,000 confirmed cases of the virus on the mainland, and over 800 deaths.

Hong Kong on Sunday confirmed 10 more cases of coronavirus infection, taking the total tally to 36.

Chan, who suffers from high blood pressure, said his medicine would run out on Monday. Lawmaker James To Kun-sun, who is helping Chan, arranged to send him more medicine by mail last Saturday, but it was unclear if or when the pills would reach him.

Chan said he had cut back on taking his medicine to every second day after realising he had only about a week’s supply left. “I have tried to remain calm and avoid any movement to keep my blood pressure relatively low,” he said.

He said he was wary of visiting local hospitals, which was one of the pieces of advice the government’s economic and trade office in Wuhan had given him. He first contacted the office on January 24. Local pharmacies did not have similar drugs in stock.

Meanwhile, local supermarkets only opened for 30 minutes to an hour each day, so most people had to rely on food stored up before the Lunar New Year, or vegetables grown locally.

Chan hoped to get home to Hong Kong as soon as possible but he did not expect a chartered flight would be provided before the lockdown in the province was lifted.

“At least get us out of Hubei. We can then make our own way back,” Chan said.

After the lockdown was imposed in Wuhan, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said on January 28 that officials were in talks with the central government on bringing back residents in a “safe and practical situation”.

But three days later, mainland affairs minister Patrick Nip Tak-kuen said the government had to consider whether evacuation was appropriate.

The Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said it would be “prudent” in considering whether to bring citizens back home.

“There have been over 1,000 requests for assistance involving more than 2,000 people in over 30 different cities in Hubei. Some Hong Kong people are in rural areas of Hubei,” the bureau’s spokeswoman said in a reply to the Post.

“In considering whether to arrange for Hongkongers to return, we will prudently assess the public health risk and practicality, especially to make sure they will not infect each other, and quarantine measures.”

About 100 citizens in Hubei had also asked for help with medication, the bureau said, noting the assistance from the central government’s liaison office and Hong Kong and Macau office of Hubei province. “The first batch of medication already reached the Wuhan office on Sunday, and was to be distributed to places in Hubei.”

Former security minister Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, without confirming the government’s decision, agreed that there were practical difficulties in bringing Hong Kong people back.

“We understand they are at ground zero and it’s painful, but maybe staying put at this juncture is the safest move,” said Ip, who also serves as an adviser to Lam.

“We have to consider the safest way, and what if some of those on the chartered flight are infected and pass it on to everyone on board?”

Ip Kwok-him, another adviser to Lam, said the government did not have a moral responsibility to bring people back to Hong Kong.

“They may have worked or lived there and have their own social circle,” he said. “And each place is focused on stopping the spread of the outbreak and may not make arrangements to get people back that soon. The situation in Wuhan is not that serious.”

Not all Hong Kong residents in Hubei were eager to leave.

Since January 16, Annabella Woo, who worked as a model in Hong Kong, has been in a town about an hour’s drive from Wuhan with her boyfriend. Woo said she was in no hurry to return to Hong Kong although she was also running low on masks.

“What’s the point of going back now? I shall isolate myself and only return when the situation is under control,” she said.

“The point is, we’re not sure what we will face after going back to Beijing or Hong Kong.”

Unlike Woo, Chan said he was determined to return to Hong Kong even if it meant being placed under quarantine for 14 days.

“We are portrayed as those infected with the disease. We were only in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Following media inquiries, the Department of Health replied to Chan on Sunday evening to say it would arrange medicine for him from public hospital clinics, although it would take a few days to be delivered from Hong Kong to Hubei.


Category: Hong Kong

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