The first coronavirus death in Hong Kong prompts health workers to strike and demand that its border with mainland China be fully closed
- The first coronavirus death in Hong Kong has prompted thousands of hospital employees to go on strike.
- The man who died infected his 72-year-old mother, marking Hong Kong's first human-to-human transmission of the illness.
- Health workers do not believe that a partial closure of Hong Kong's border with mainland China is enough to stop the spread of the deadly virus, which has affected more than 24,000 people worldwide.
- Chief Executive Carrie Lam said that her government "[agrees] with them on the need to reduce the cross-border flow … but at this critical juncture, I could not agree with the use of extreme means."
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The first coronavirus death in Hong Kong prompted thousands of hospital employees to walk off the job on Tuesday, the second day of a country-wide health worker strike.
The strikers are lobbying for the full closure of the semi-autonomous territory's border with mainland China, where the National Health Commission has reported 24,300-plus cases of coronavirus and nearly 500 deaths.
So far, Hong Kong has seen 17 cases - seven of them among mainland China residents - and the death of one man.
The 39-year-old visited Wuhan the day before it was put on lockdown and effectively cut off from the rest of China, Al Jazeera reported. The man then boarded a high-speed train from Changsha to Hong Kong.
Local officials told Al Jazeera that the man, who was diabetic, declined rapidly overnight on Monday. An autopsy has been ordered so they can pinpoint what caused his death.
The man's mother, 72, contracted the coronavirus from him and is hospitalized in stable condition. This case also marks Hong Kong's first human-to-human transmission of the deadly virus, the Post reported. Other family members have been quarantined.
News of the man's death has shaken the close-knit community where he lived. Several relatives lived only three floors below his apartment, Al Jazeera found.
'Putting politics above public health'
On Monday night, authorities in Hong Kong blocked all but three border crossing points with mainland China and restricted ferry services from Macau. Hong Kong International Airport, the Shenzhen Bay joint checkpoint, and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge are currently the only ways in and out of Hong Kong, according to the South China Morning Post.
But the public is keen on a total closure.
Seventy-eight percent of 20,000 people surveyed by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute support a full border closure, while 75% said they were unhappy with how the government had handled the coronavirus outbreak and 61% offered their support to the striking public health workers, viewing it a way to put pressure on the government, according to poll results.
At a media conference on Tuesday, Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the suspension of high-speed rail and ferry services between Hong Kong and China, the Atlantic reported. The number of flights to mainland China has also been slashed in half and the government is no longer issuing personal travel permits to mainland residents who want to enter Hong Kong.
Lam told reporters, however, that she "certainly would not agree with the allegation that we are not addressing this public health concern adequately. Certainly, I do not agree with the allegation that we are putting politics above public health," Al Jazeera said.
The Post reported that Lam has also doubled down on the claim that many people from Hong Kong need to cross the border and that it would be unfair to entirely block access from the mainland.
"When it comes to infection control, when it comes to a virus, there is no boundary, so you cannot differentiate that people of a certain race, of a certain nationality ... are more prone to infection than other people, we have to treat them equally," she said.
Sixty percent of the 11, 715 visitors who came to Hong Kong from mainland China on Sunday entered through the three border points that are currently open, according to RTHK, a local media group that cited data from Hong Kong's Immigration Department.
Protecting Hong Kong from becoming 'another Wuhan'
But Winnie Yu, chairperson of the Hospital Authority Employees' Alliance, a newly-minted labor union that represents an estimated 9,000 employees out of Hong Kong's Hospital Authority's 67,000 staff members, disagrees with Lam.
"There is still a chance to save Hong Kong from the destiny of turning into another Wuhan, being cut off from the world, patients turned away from fully occupied hospitals, and healthcare staff crumbling under the severe pressure," she said, according to medical journal BMJ.
Around 2,700 people missed work on Monday. The fact that almost 1,200 doctors and nurses were on strike forced cancer treatments and angioplasty surgeries to be postponed, the Post said. That number ballooned to over 7,000 on Tuesday, Al Jazeera reported.
"The measure provided by the Hong Kong government won't work because it is not a complete shutdown of the border," Yu said at a media conference, RTHK reported. "The Wuhan pneumonia carrier may still be able to come into Hong Kong with these measures."
On Tuesday, the Hospital Authority said that the strike had made a severe dent in the available emergency services, and asked people with mild illnesses to use private hospitals or clinics rather than public hospitals, according to the BMJ. Despite the knowledge that Hong Kong's medical care will be affected by the healthcare workers' strike and some hospitals might need to shut down entire wards, Yu said the group is receiving "tremendous" support from patients.
'The use of extreme means'
Ivan Law, the Alliance's vice chairman, said that he is worried by Lam's plan to quarantine everyone who comes to Hong Kong from mainland China - even local residents - from Saturday. He expressed fears that an influx of people ahead of the deadline could overwhelm medical staff and further spread the virus, RTHK said.
Meanwhile, Lam made an attempt to assuage strikers' concerns, the Post reported.
"I completely understand that medical professionals have been on the forefront, I respect them, and we will do our utmost to supply them with protective gear," she said. "We agree with them on the need to reduce the cross-border flow … but at this critical juncture, I could not agree with the use of extreme means."
Many feel Hong Kong hasn't fully been able to put its experience with severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) behind it, which may be lending itself to the territory's reaction to the coronavirus.
The SARS outbreak originated in China in November 2002, and by August 2003, had affected 8,422 people and killed 916, across 29 countries and three regions, according to a study by the Earth Institute at Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"Because the world was kept in the dark about the seriousness of the outbreak in Guangdong, Hong Kong was caught unprepared when SARS first appeared in the territory via an elderly medical doctor from Guangzhou who had been treating 'atypical pneumonia' patients," the study said. All told, the disease killed 299 people in Hong Kong and triggered an economic slowdown.
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