‘Hotbeds of disease’: call for government aid for Hongkongers in subdivided flats, as fears over coronavirus in sewage systems mount

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

Needy residents living in Hong Kong’s subdivided flats who cannot afford masks or disinfectants have expressed fears that their cramped quarters and bad drainage systems are exposing them to the coronavirus.

In a survey of 107 people in subdivided homes conducted by the Kwai Chung Subdivided Flats Residents’ Alliance, respondents rated government measures against the outbreak an average of 2.4 out of 10, with a third giving a score of 0.

“I know I need to do my part to prevent the spread of the virus, but the government is not providing me with the means to do so,” said a 75-year-old resident, who only gave her surname as Pang.

“I would give the government negative marks if I could.”

Many residents have started steaming, sunning, ironing and washing surgical masks to “disinfect” them for reuse, the alliance said. One elderly resident had been storing used masks in envelopes, or wrapping them up in newspapers in the hope this would absorb moisture from the masks so they could be worn again.

Pang, who lives in a flat subdivided into two units, said her husband was suffering from heart disease and cancer, and had to make frequent visits to Princess Margaret Hospital for treatment. “I’m down to two or three masks at home, but I have been reusing my mask for three days now so I can save those for my husband,” she said.

She had layered a handkerchief inside her surgical mask, washing the piece of cloth daily with the idea that this would extend the mask’s usability.

More than 43,000 people have been infected with the coronavirus worldwide, with most of the cases from mainland China. The global death count has surpassed 1,000. As of Tuesday afternoon, Hong Kong has 42 cases, with one related fatality.

With the city facing a community outbreak, there has been a frenzy to buy masks and disinfectants, as prices skyrocket and stocks disappear from shelves.

This meant low-income residents were unable to afford any protective gear, with those in subdivided flats most at risk because of the linked drainage systems, said Kenny Ng Kwan-lim, a member of the residents’ alliance.

Quarantine list

On Monday night, health authorities launched an emergency evacuation of a public housing estate in Tsing Yi after officials expressed concern the virus was spreading through the building’s sewage system. The city’s 42nd case was found there and linked to an earlier patient in the same block who was the 12th case.

Ng said the plumbing system in subdivided flats was even more worrying, since these were altered to accommodate more toilets, and did not come with a U-shaped design meant to lock in water for hygiene purposes.

The survey of Kwai Chung residents found 42.6 per cent lived in flats subdivided into three units, and 60 per cent of them were concerned about the sewage system spreading the disease. The average income of survey participants was HK$11,097, and more than half were households of three to four people.

A volunteer plumber who only wished to be known as Chan said many of the homes he had worked on only had straight pipes, which meant there was often a bad smell in the flats and a backflow of dirty water between the kitchen and toilets.

The survey also found that more than 80 per cent of respondents could not afford to buy disinfectants and only had enough masks to last about two weeks. Single-person households were in even worse shape as they had no time to queue for masks since they had to work, Ng said. Many were down to a weeks’ supply.

“I feel so helpless. I cannot go out because I don’t have enough masks, but I am worried about staying home because of the cramped space and sewage,” said Yuki Tang, another Kwai Chung resident who lives in a flat subdivided into six units.

Tang, who has a young daughter, said she sometimes took the child to a nearby park without a mask to play, as her daughter was bored at home.

She said she was worried about the rent, as her husband had already been asked to take leave by the hotel he worked for.

“He might be fired or asked to take unpaid leave soon, but I dare not ask my landlord for an extension or discount on my rent in case they decide to take away the flat from us,” she said.

The residents’ alliance called on the government to give out protective gear to low-income residents as soon as possible and to increase education on preventive measures.

Alliance member Vivien Yau Tze-Wei said: “The government also needs to set up housing regulations and stop the illegal modification of structures and sewage systems to prevent subdivided flats from becoming hotbeds of disease.”



Category: Hong Kong

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