For nearly two years, some businesses owners in Hong Kong felt confident that they had weathered the worst of the pandemic. That changed this month when Omicron started spreading, and officials returned to the trusted “zero-Covid” playbook that Hong Kong shares with mainland China.
Hong Kong is chasing the same dogged virus strategy as China, hoping this will strengthen ties to Beijing and allow it to declare victory over Covid-19. But in the process, a Chinese territory once known as “Asia’s World City” has cut itself off from the outside world, crushing an economy reliant on international trade at a time when the global supply chain is already deeply strained.
The economic fallout has been staggering. In the days after the city announced its latest virus measures, several small businesses, including a rotisserie chicken chain, a popular wine bar, a craft beer shop and a gastro pub, said they would close.
“I’ve tried to hold out as long as possible, but we are losing money,” said Perry Lam, the owner of a local brewery called H.K. Lovecraft.
Economists at Wall Street banks have lowered their estimates of the city’s economic growth for the year. Fitch, the ratings agency, warned that the ban on foreign travel would severely threaten Hong Kong’s economic future.
Hong Kong has reported around 300 cases of Omicron, most detected from overseas visitors during their quarantine. In recent days, however, local infections have jumped and emerged from unexpected origins, putting health officials on edge. In all, it has recorded 13,096 virus cases and 213 deaths since the start of the pandemic.
These low numbers have been too much for Beijing’s zero-tolerance line, a seeming prerequisite for Hong Kong to reopen its border with China — a top priority for local officials who are under pressure to make the former British colony more like the mainland.
New Zealand on Friday confirmed a case of Omicron in the town of Palmerston North, the first known Omicron case outside of workers at the country’s airports and hotel quarantine facilities. The person had previously spent two weeks in a quarantine facility in Christchurch. To counter the potential spread of the variant, New Zealand will increase the isolation time for all people who test positive for the virus to 14 days from 10, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Health said on Friday. Close contacts must now isolate for 10 days instead of a week.
Malaysia on Friday resumed the sale of flight and bus tickets to vaccinated travelers going to and from Singapore through a vaccinated travel lane that connects the neighboring Southeast Asian countries. The suspension began on Dec. 22 over concerns about Omicron. Travelers in the program will not have to quarantine but must be tested for the coronavirus six times after arrival.
Hong Kong teachers and school staff members will be required to receive at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine to enter school premises starting Feb. 24, the authorities said on Thursday. Unvaccinated staff will also be barred from teaching online or off-campus when in-person classes are not suspended, and all staff directly employed by schools will need to receive second doses by April 21. Around two-thirds of people in the city of 7.5 million are fully vaccinated, a relatively low rate compared with that of many developed countries.
India’s capital, New Delhi, is considering easing restrictions and Mumbai will open schools next week, as officials say the worst of the Omicron-fueled wave in major urban centers appears to be subsiding. India reported nearly 350,000 new Covid cases on Friday, but officials say they are heartened that the test positivity rate has started coming down in major cities and that hospitalization rates have remained drastically lower than the deadly second wave fueled by Delta in the spring. More than 65 percent of India’s adult population is fully vaccinated, while more than 90 percent has received at least one dose of a vaccine.