(Bloomberg) -- Hours without electricity or mobile-phone reception. No food for an entire day. Dozens unable to leave because of missing documents.
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These are among the tales of chaos pouring out of a makeshift quarantine camp in Hong Kong, as one of Asia’s wealthiest cities struggles to house, feed and process some 3,000 people it has forcibly isolated in a desperate bid to stamp out the virus from the Chinese territory of 7.4 million people.
May Ng, 52, was still held at the main Penny’s Bay quarantine center on Thursday even though her detention order -- seen by Bloomberg News -- said she should’ve departed a day earlier. Staff at the camp told her the Health Department hadn’t provided documents needed for her release, she said.
“I feel that this isn’t the same Hong Kong where I grew up,” Ng said. “The government is so unorganized, and there’s no leadership. They just follow tasks. They don’t look at the big picture.”
Some 60 people were held one or two days past their quarantine order due to “human error” in data entry, Edwin Tsui, controller of the Center for Health Protection, said at a regular press briefing Friday. An additional 400 people have now been assigned to pandemic issues, Tsui added, and the government is trying to find more isolation facilities.
The disarray has triggered a wave of anger from holed-up residents, and exposed a government under-prepared for the highly infectious omicron variant after relying primarily on strict border curbs to manage the pandemic. Hong Kong still has one of the developed world’s lowest vaccination rates despite going months without a locally transmitted case, prompting authorities to send close contacts of positive cases to quarantine camps for several weeks.
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The crisis at Penny’s Bay, which sits near Hong Kong Disneyland on the outlying island of Lantau, also poses a major barrier to lifting a passenger flight ban from the U.S., U.K. and other major economies. Travelers from such “high-risk” nations have to filter through Penny’s Bay to reenter the city, which has seen visitor numbers plummet just a few years after boasting one of Asia’s busiest airports.
“If this is the only way to handle Zero Covid then we need to give up on Zero Covid and safeguard the economy and livelihood of the community,” district councilor Paul Zimmerman said. “The flight ban is an outrageous measure and must be lifted forthwith. Hong Kong is a world city and a cog in the wheels of international trade and finance.”
Hong Kong has stuck with its policy of eliminating the virus to try to restart quarantine-free travel with mainland China. Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Wednesday the city would need to go 14 days without a single local infection to realize that goal, which Zimmerman described as a “dead end road.”
Hong Kong has reported more than 50 community cases in the past two weeks, after conducting nearly 1 million tests on residents, mostly tied back to imported cases. With hospitals and isolation venues filling up, officials said Monday they would allow close contacts of confirmed patients to quarantine for 14 days in government facilities, down from the previous 21 days. Designated hotels and a holiday village were also re-purposed to beef up capacity.
For now, staff at Penny’s Bay and other quarantine centers are overwhelmed with managing testing and paperwork for thousands of people with unique circumstances. Quarantined residents contacted by Bloomberg said phone calls to the center’s hotline often go unanswered and the voicemail of its testing site is always full, leaving those isolated without any guidance.
Hong Kong resident K. Lam was among those prevented leaving this week due to missing documents. “My daughter cried the whole night last night as she expected to go to school today,” Lam said of her 12-year-old, who was also in the 200-square-foot (20-square-meter) room. The pair were finally released on Thursday afternoon.
Hong Kong authorities have acknowledged the dire conditions at Penny’s Bay, and vowed to fix them. On Wednesday, the government announced a three-hour electricity outage for hundreds of units, which quarantined residents said was accompanied by a mobile-phone reception blackout.
“I understand the relevant parties are working very busy on the quarantine facilities and logistics and so on, because of this huge sudden increase in demand,” health official Chuang Shuk-kwan said at a press briefing Thursday. “They are trying their best to sort it out.”
Still, many in Hong Kong are questioning the sustainability of the policy.
“The government needs to start having a conversation with the public as to what happens when the variant is loose in the community,” said Nicholas Thomas, professor in Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong. “This will mean shorter quarantine times, more robust vaccinations and a greater reliance on vaccine mandates.”
Quarantined residents spoke of not being tested regularly despite government rules mandating them, or failing to receive their results. Earlier this week, they received a letter asking them to call the center’s hotline if they hadn’t been tested by their third day in quarantine.
Bendo, who asked to only be quoted by his middle name, said he was still awaiting results from a test he took on Jan. 7. “Who knows, maybe I am positive,” he said. “When I kept calling two days ago, they literally said we can’t find your test results.”
He also expressed concern about getting stuck in quarantine after police stopped a woman who tried to leave on the date specified on her detention order.
“As soon as the quarantine date expires, we should be allowed to leave,” Bendo said. “It’s not a prison.”
Paul, a Hong Kong resident and British national who asked to be identified by his first name, said he didn’t receive drinking water for the first six hours of his stay in quarantine, and food delivery was erratic.
“Every time you talk to them, the response is, ‘Please be patient’ -- they’re at breaking point,” he said. “I just wonder what is the end game because I can’t see how Hong Kong can continue along this path indefinitely.”
(Updates with number of detainees trapped from first paragraph.)
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