As new cases of a deadly new corona virus mounted this week, Chief Executive Carrie Lam was forced to cancel plans to turn a newly built housing estate into a quarantine facility after protesters set fire to the lobby. She’s denied rumors that the government was blocking shipments of surgical masks and found her efforts to dramatically curtail visits by mainlanders panned by health workers, as well as lawmakers.
The outbreak left Lam facing a strikingly similar situation to one of her predecessors, Tung Chee-hwa, who in 2003 found himself grappling with an uprising against China-backed national security legislation and an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome that ended up killing almost 300 people in Hong Kong. Tung later resigned — something Lam has so far refused to do, despite having even lower poll numbers.
The current coronavirus scare threatens to erode what little support Lam has, as people worried about their safety join activists seeking more political freedom in the former British colony. Health sector employees and medical professionals say they have enrolled 15,000 people in a union and are threatening to strike Monday, unless the government meets demands including suspending all entries via the mainland.
“What made our medical staff angry was that the government is not doing enough to prevent the virus from spreading and we could die because of that,” said Ivan Law, vice chairman of the union, the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance. “It’s our job to look after patients. We’re letting the government know that they have their job to protect Hong Kong people.”
As of Wednesday, Hong Kong had confirmed at least 10 cases of the new strain of coronavirus first identified last month in the central Chinese city of Wuhan. That’s compared with more than 7,700 on the mainland as of Thursday morning — a number exceeding the reported cases during the SARS epidemic — while at least 170 people have died from the disease.
Hong Kong’s case tally is expected to rise. More than 50 million mainland residents visited last year, thanks to a series of programs and projects backed by the Communist Party in Beijing, such as a bridge to neighboring Zhuhai and Macau, including several initiated after the SARS outbreak.
The virus scare has thrown Hong Kong back into a state of siege, just as the pitched battles between police and protesters that gripped the Asian financial center for much of last year began to calm down. Bankers and other office workers have been ordered to work from home while residents strip food from grocery store shelves and line up for scarce supplies of face masks and hand sanitizer.
The mask shortage has prompted unflattering comparisons between Hong Kong and Macau, which said it had secured 20 million masks for its population of fewer than 700,000 people. The world’s largest gaming hub also acted more quickly to curb travelers from Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province.
Hong Kong’s government said in a statement Thursday that a sufficient supply of equipment for health protection was of “paramount importance” and that it was working “proactively” to increase the supply of masks, including sourcing them globally. Still, it cautioned that the supply of available surgical masks would be tight for the near future.
Even lawmakers from Hong Kong’s largest pro-Beijing party broke ranks with Lam, advocating during a meeting Tuesday to seal off the border, the South China Morning Post newspaper reported. They also urged the government to release the number of Hong Kong visitors from Hubei.
Lam pushed back against the idea of a total border closure at a news conference to announce the measures. “If we close the border and do not let anyone coming in and out of Hong Kong, the impact will be far-reaching,” she said Tuesday, without elaborating.
“What the Hong Kong government has done is to allow political considerations to prevail over scientific data,” said Alan Leong, a former leader of the opposition Civic Party who ran for chief executive in 2007. “This is inexcusable — the last nail on Carrie Lam’s coffin.”
Even before the outbreak, Lam’s approval rating hovered near record lows. Residents pegged her performance at 21.5 on a 100-point scale, compared with a low of 36.2 for Tung, according to a Hong Kong Public Opinion Program survey released earlier this month.
“The only consideration of the HKSAR Government in dealing with the novel coronavirus infection is public health — public health underpinned by very strong scientific and expert advice. There is no other factor involved,” a government spokeswoman said in an e-mailed statement from Lam’s office late Wednesday.
Seven months of anti-government protests triggered by Lam’s unsuccessful efforts to pass a law allowing extraditions to the mainland have already pushed Hong Kong’s economy into recession. The outbreak is likely to deal a further blow to the all-important retail sales and tourism from mainland visitors. The benchmark Heng Seng Index is flirting with a 15-month low.
The crisis reminded many in the city of the SARS outbreak, which battered the city’s massive property market and helped fuel suspicion of encroachment by mainland Chinese. Back then, the government’s solution to Hong Kong’s economic woes was to open Hong Kong individual travelers from the mainland, a move that Beijing’s critics have long seen as part of effort to erode the local identity.
Now, Lam is battling against the perception that she’s putting those visits over residents’ safety.
“Hong Kong people fear Carrie Lam doesn’t have the health of the people as her top priority, but rather political considerations and the wishes of her masters in China,” said Emily Lau, a former leader of the Democratic Party who served on the Legislative Council for more than two decades. “During the SARS outbreak in 2003, hundreds of people died and the level of trust in the government was low, but now the confidence and trust in Carrie Lam’s government is zero.”
By Alfred Liu, Shelly Banjo and Annie Lee