Hong Kong took the unprecedented step of forcing residents of a sprawling neighborhood to test for Covid-19 as authorities try to control an outbreak of the omicron variant that’s seen cases doubling every few days.
The 20,000-strong community of Discovery Bay — home to many expat financial-industry professionals, lawyers and airline pilots — was issued with mandatory testing orders late Tuesday after the virus was found in sewage samples from the area. The order includes anyone who was in the neighborhood, located in Lantau island, for more than 2 hours from Jan. 26 to Feb. 8, according to a government compulsory testing notice.
“I understand H.K.’s trying to be proactive in our defense, however, all other countries have tried and failed in controlling omicron,” said Jevon Marsh, a Discovery Bay resident of six years. “At what point does H.K. accept the spread is uncontrollable and measures of living with Covid and protecting the vulnerable prevail?”
After being Covid-free for much of last year, Hong Kong is struggling to slow the spread of the highly contagious variant. The city will announce more than 1,100 new cases on Wednesday, local media reported. This would be the first time daily infections rise above 1,000.
Under the latest round of measures that take effect Thursday, the city will ban more than two families from gathering in private premises — including house parties. Hong Kong is clamping down on socializing after blaming last week’s Lunar New Year holidays, typically the year’s most festive season for families and friends to gather, for sparking the explosive increase in infections.
For Discovery Bay residents and visitors there, they will be required to get tested Feb. 8-13, according to the government statement. The 650-hectare residential development is about 30 minutes away by ferry from downtown Hong Kong and is famous for its use of pricey golf carts instead of private cars. According to a 2016 census, more than half of its residents were non-Chinese.
The government had detected Covid in sewage samples in the area before but unlike this time, it had previously ordered testing at a smaller scale and residents were handed tens of thousands of home testing kits.
More broadly in Hong Kong, the outbreak has reached a level that’s rarely been quashed by any other place, and only achieved elsewhere with harsh lockdowns, though these didn’t involve omicron. China, which deploys lockdowns and mass testing at a scale that Hong Kong can’t match, hasn’t faced a surge of this magnitude since it stamped out infection in Wuhan in early 2020.
A city-wide, China-style lockdown is unlikely, according to Bernard Chan, a financier and convener of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s advisory Executive Council.
“I don’t think we can ever go into a full lockdown,” Chan said. “We just can’t do it in Hong Kong.”
Hong Kong is among the last places on earth refusing to live with Covid, even as omicron makes that strategy increasingly difficult and costly for their economies. Despite the explosion in cases, Beijing has made it clear Hong Kong has no choice but to stick to the Covid Zero policy that’s seen the city isolate itself from the world for much of the past two years.