Hong Kong is blocking entire residential blocks without warning as part of a controversial new strategy to contain the Covid-19 outbreaks.
For the past 10 days, squads of Hong Kong police have launched “ambush-style” lockdowns, rushing through the streets to cordon off buildings and their occupants, forcing everyone to undergo Covid-19 tests or fined $ 5,000. Hong Kong ($ 645).
On Tuesday, the government said authorities could break into people’s homes and forcibly remove them if they don’t submit to the tests.
The government has defended the strategy and vowed to continue, despite criticism that it is causing anxiety and alarm for little impact. Authorities have reportedly detected around a dozen cases out of more than 10,000 tested.
Since its first major lockdown a year ago, Hong Kong has avoided a second, and instead endured fluctuating social restrictions to suppress successive waves of infections. The latest outbreak is the fourth major, and while the number of daily cases is declining, specific building closures are increasing. The government plans to average one per day until the start of the lunar new year next week.
The blocks last only a day or two, and people are sent downstairs to temporary testing sites. The rapid change is made possible by Hong Kong’s increased testing capacity, from less than 10,000 per day last year to 100,000 per day now.
For the most part, they have targeted infection sites in densely populated neighborhoods that are home to older buildings, often overcrowded with numerous subdivided units and without centralized administration. But it also includes the stores in the building and the employees or customers who are there.
The tactic has been divisive. Some of the 400 residents of two Lam Tin buildings that were closed said the ambush was unnecessary and “a disaster”, while others said they were reassured to know that no new cases had been found.
The low number of cases found has raised questions about profitability. The first operation, in Jordan’s densely populated Kowloon neighborhood, found 13 infections amid 7,000 tests last weekend. The most recent, testing more than 2,000 people, found zero.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung said it was “good news” because “that means there is no infection in that area.”
However, the claim is not necessarily true, said associate professor James Trauer, director of the epidemiological modeling unit at Monash University.
“Presumably they are blocking a block and waiting for the results, and getting a snapshot of who is infectious at the time, but then there is an incubation period,” Trauer told The Guardian. “Usually it’s only three or four days, but it can last up to 14 days.”
Trauer said it was “doubtful” that the strategy worked very well and looked similar to an employee in the Australian city of Melbourne in the early stages of its big outbreak last year.
“We started by closing apartment blocks and then zip codes, but in reality the spaces through which the virus was being transmitted were larger than the areas around which we drew the lines,” he said. “People’s social networks do not normally obey these rigid spatial limits.”
Sophie Chan, the food and health secretary, said the quick closures allowed authorities to quickly identify and isolate cases and close contacts. “We don’t think this places a heavy burden on people or is a waste of public money,” he said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism