HK fourth wave: South Asian residents, concern groups outraged over official’s coronavirus remarks

21-Jan-2021 Intellasia | South China Morning Post | 6:02 AM Print This Post

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has sought to reassure members of ethnic minority groups caught up in an escalating Covid-19 outbreak in Hong Kong’s Yau Tsim Mong district that they have not been targeted based on race or ethnicity, after an outcry sparked by a health official’s suggestion that their “behaviour put them at risk”.

“There is absolutely no suggestion of the spread of disease relating to race or ethnicity,” Lam said on Tuesday. “If there is any misunderstanding arising from any remarks made by any officials, I made it absolutely clear here.”

South Asian residents and concern groups have expressed outrage over the remarks made by Raymond Ho Lei-ming, a senior official from the Centre for Health Protection.

Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.

“They have many family gatherings and like to gather with fellow countrymen,” Ho said on Monday. “They like to share food, smoke, drink alcohol and chat together. If it is without masks, the risk is high. They also need to share sanitary facilities with neighbours if the living environment is crowded.”

Health authorities also noted that a quarter of the 661 confirmed local cases since January 4 involved members of ethnic minority groups, predominantly Nepalese and Indian residents, many of whom lived in Yau Tsim Mong.

But at the press briefing before the weekly meeting of her de facto cabinet, the Executive Council, Lam stressed that social behaviour, living conditions and workplace hygiene were all important factors that could make certain residents more vulnerable to the virus, which had nothing to do with ethnicity.

By naming a particular group, we definitely have no intention of labelling different groups of people

Dr Chui Tak-yi, undersecretary for food and health

Speaking later, Undersecretary for Food and Health Dr Chui Tak-yi dodged the question of whether the government would apologise for Ho’s remarks.

“Since the outbreak of Covid-19 in Hong Kong, the government has reported different kinds of clusters,” he said. “This particular cluster in Yau Ma Tei is partly rooted… [in] those who are working in different construction sites, so by naming a particular group, we definitely have no intention of labelling different groups of people.”

But some in the Nepalese communities in Yau Ma Tei were deeply upset over Ho’s words. Many emphasized they were as disciplined in following social-distancing measures and proper hygiene standards as other locals and foreigners. But what did allow the virus to spread was the cramped living conditions they had to endure, they said.

“I find the comments offensive,” said waitress Pooja Gurung, 25. “We follow the protocols just like everyone else because we do not want anyone to get harmed.”

In her own residential building occupied mostly by Nepalese families Gurung said tenants had put in place a weekly rotational system to manage and sanitise public areas, with a different family assigned the duties each week.

“We need to take care of ourselves,” she said, adding that despite not always having access to top sanitary equipment, they did the best with what they could afford.

Tamang, 16, agreed that members of ethnic minority communities should not be held solely to blame for the flare up in cases.

All of Hong Kong should be to blame, not just us

Nepalese student

“Nepalese, they gather around and drink and smoke together. But we’re not the only ones to take the blame,” said the Nepalese student, who asked his last name be withheld. “All of Hong Kong should be to blame, not just us.”

But not all residents disagreed entirely with the official.

“Too many people are still going out to parties on Saturdays and Sunday nights or hosting them at home,” said Raj Khadgi, 35. “I think what [the official said] is true.”

The Nepalese golf course employee said social-distancing violations occurred “a little bit more frequently” in his community than elsewhere. Although wearing masks at private gatherings needed to become more common, everyone donned the face covering while out in public, he said.

Shalini Mahtani, founder of the Zubin Foundation advocacy group, called Ho’s remarks “demeaning and insulting to all ethnic minorities of Hong Kong” that reinforced stereotypes that its members were unsanitary. They needed to share bathrooms because they were unable to afford homes with private facilities, she said. It was also inaccurate to claim residents liked to gather with “fellow countrymen” because many of them were born in Hong Kong, Mahtani noted.

The flare up in Yau Tsim Mong has been linked in part to workers, many of whom are Nepalese, from two construction sites in the area. Mahtani said the government needed to provide proper equipment such as high-quality face shields for workers who frequently came in close contact with each other, including in construction, because many members of ethnic minorities had difficulty affording them.

One in four were already living in poverty before the pandemic, she said. Recent lay-offs in the airline and catering industries the two other main employers of members of ethnic minority communities had made matters much worse, driving hundreds to her office looking for work.

“We cannot expect families that are already struggling with poverty and unemployment to purchase expensive protective equipment,” she said.

Even if ethnic minority groups strictly followed social-distancing rules and had better protection in the workplace, many said it would still be difficult to prevent the virus from spreading because so many living in cramped, subdivided flats.

“You have six people living in the same house, sharing the same bathroom and kitchen, and there is a high chance of the virus spreading from one family member to another and beyond,” Gurung said.

Rent in Hong Kong was so high, most were priced out of bigger and safer housing, she noted.

Going forward, the government needed to work closer with NGOs that had direct ties with ethnic minority communities to improve communication and understanding, Mahtani said.

A better sense of the needs and concerns of the community would be especially important if many were suddenly required to undergo quarantine, she said, as this could lead to another round of lay-offs and families potentially being split up.

She also urged officials not to repeat Ho’s remarks.

“It is important for the administration to be sensitive in its use of language. Such remarks by Ho are counterproductive to an inclusive Hong Kong and help to further spread racial discrimination in Hong Kong, which is already a problem,” she added.


Category: Hong Kong

Print This Post

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.