Hong Kong, Buckling Under Covid, Leaves Its Most Vulnerable in the Cold

Hong Kong, Buckling Under Covid, Leaves Its Most Vulnerable in the Cold

HONG KONG — For Chan Shun Ki, a cleaner at a construction site in Hong Kong, getting over the coronavirus was the easy part.

Ms. Chan was anxious to return to work after missing more than a week last month while recovering. She had already skipped her rent payment after the pandemic wiped out her previous jobs cleaning hotels and waiting tables. She was borrowing money from relatives to make up for the loss of her $83 daily wage.

But then she received a text message from the government health system, which was battling days-long backlogs. It ordered her to stay home for two more weeks because her coronavirus test had come back positive. She had taken it 12 days earlier.

“I feel so much pressure,” said Ms. Chan, who is a single mother of a 15-year-old. “The government is really incompetent, and it leaves us residents not knowing what to do.”

As Hong Kong sinks under its fifth, and worst, coronavirus wave, the brunt is falling upon its most vulnerable: migrants, racial minorities, the working class. While the city has long been one of the most unequal on earth, rarely has the cost of that inequality been as steep as now.

That is, in part, because of the sheer scale of this wave, which in two months has led to more than 250,000 infections and 800 deaths — multiple times as many as in the previous four waves combined. Bodies have piled up in hospital hallways because morgues have no more room. Older patients have been left on gurneys outdoors.

But the suffering has also been exacerbated, some say, by government policy. Under direction from the central Chinese authorities, Hong Kong officials have insisted on some of the world’s most stringent social distancing rules, crippling many service industries. Yet, they have failed to contain the virus.

As a result, poor residents in cramped apartments have spread the virus to their families because the government has run out of isolation facilities. Those who recover cannot return to work because the testing jam means they cannot prove they are negative.

Migrant domestic workers, predominantly Southeast Asian women who work as caregivers and cleaners, have been fired after getting sick and forced to sleep on the streets. (Hong Kong law requires the workers to live in their employers’ homes.) Vegetable prices have soared, but the government has offered limited cash relief.

At times, officials have actively challenged efforts to help the needy. A top official threatened to prosecute members of the public who raised funds for migrant workers fined for violating social distancing rules.

Roger Chung, a professor of public health ethics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the containment measures risked doing as much harm to low-income residents as the virus itself.

“I don’t think the goal of protecting people’s health from Covid-19 is the only incontestable goal” in policymaking, he said. “Because these policies can also take a toll on other people’s well-being, especially in destabilizing their income and livelihoods.”

Even before the pandemic, Hong Kong’s inequality was staggering. It has more billionaires than any city but New York, yet more than 200,000 residents live in carved-up tenement homes where the average living space per person is 48 square feet.

Amid the pandemic, those often dilapidated living quarters are even more perilous. The plumbing is frequently reconfigured to accommodate the multiple households sharing one apartment, and faulty installation can allow the virus to spread between floors. Insufficient ventilation has also fueled transmission.

Social distancing is impossible. Ms. Chan, the single mother, shares a one-room apartment with her son. Days after she fell sick, he did, too.

Some residents, desperate to avoid infecting their relatives, have slept on their rooftops or in stairwells. The Society for Community Organization, a nonprofit organization, said that it had received calls for help from nearly 300 people who were isolating at home, without access to food or medical supplies, since the fifth wave began in January.

The lack of isolation facilities has proved equally, if not more, challenging for migrant domestic workers, who make up about 10 percent of the working population, have few legal rights and often suffer discrimination.

Inah, an Indonesian worker who has been in Hong Kong for three years, began coughing on Feb. 21. Her employer ordered her not to return to the house until she had a negative test result, said Inah, who insisted on being identified only by her first name for fear of losing her job.

For hours, she stood in the rain outside her employer’s home. Finally, around midnight, her employer allowed her in, ordering her to go straight to her room without using the restroom, Inah said. In the morning, she was kicked out again.

“Why do you just push me; you never helped me with anything?” said Inah, who eventually found a place to stay through the nonprofit HELP for Domestic Workers.

HELP’s executive director, Manisha Wijesinghe, said that, over five days in February, the group took in nearly 70 workers who had become homeless after testing positive.

Hong Kong’s Labor Department said in a statement that firing domestic workers for illness was illegal.

But the authorities themselves have been accused of discrimination. Last month, after the government tightened restrictions on group gatherings, the police announced they had conducted a raid in an area where domestic workers “commonly gather” and issued 17 tickets. The $640 per person fine is more than the workers’ minimum monthly wage.

In response, some residents organized an online fund-raiser, collecting $14,000 in three days. Then the labor secretary, Law Chi-kwong, accused them of encouraging illegal activity and said he would consider legal action. The organizers shut down the fund-raiser.

Even residents who have avoided infection are straining under the pandemic’s economic burden.

The prices of vegetable shot up after one-fifth of the city’s vegetable truck drivers were left unable to work because of quarantine rules. (About 90 percent of Hong Kong’s produce comes from mainland China.) In late February, the average cost of Chinese lettuce was nearly three times as high as the price a month earlier, according to official statistics. Prices for tomatoes and potatoes have nearly doubled.

Chan Lap To, who owns a vegetable stand on western Hong Kong Island, said most customers were buying less than usual. But he had to hike prices. In addition to running the stall, he also sold vegetables to hotels and restaurants, and that business had plummeted by half because of the unstable supply and weak demand.

He said he had not received any government aid to make up for his losses. “This is very unfair for all Hong Kong people,” Mr. Chan said. “It’s all connected.”

The government has offered financial support for certain industries, and last week, officials proposed a nearly $22 billion relief package, including roughly $1,300 vouchers for most residents. But some businesses have been excluded from the previous subsidies. And the vouchers are digital, meaning they cannot be used for rent or at ubiquitous stalls like Mr. Chan’s that accept only cash.

Hong Kong also does not have unemployment insurance. The government pledged last month to give one-time $1,300 payments to people who lost their jobs in the fifth wave. But those who became unemployed earlier were not eligible.

For Ms. Chan, the government’s promises may bring temporary relief. But what she really wants is to get back to work. To do that, she would welcome even more draconian measures, such as a citywide lockdown, to get coronavirus cases under control.

“Dragging along like this, so I can’t work for several months — this is no way to do things,” she said. “Short-term pain is better than long-term pain.”

Joy Dong contributed reporting.

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