Thousands of Hong Kongers were ordered to stay in their homes on Saturday for the city’s first coronavirus virus lockout as authorities fight an outbreak in one of its poorest and most densely populated areas.
The order prohibits about 10,000 people living in several residential buildings in Jordan from leaving their apartment unless they can show a negative test.
Officials said they planned to test everyone within the designated zone within 48 hours “to achieve the goal of zero cases in the district”.
“Residents must stay with them to avoid cross-infection until they get their test results,” Health Minister Sophia Chan told reporters on Saturday.
The South China Morning Post said the measures included about 150 residential buildings, with hundreds of police on standby to implement the lock.
Hong Kong was one of the first places to be affected by the coronavirus after it emerged from central China.
It has kept infections below 10,000 with about 170 deaths by introducing effective but financially punishing social distancing measures for most of the past year.
In the last two months, the city has been hit by a fourth wave of infections with authorities struggling to bring down the daily number.
Stubborn clusters have emerged in low-income neighborhoods that are notorious for some of the world’s most cramped housing in the Yau Tsim Mong district.
Inequality and housing shortages
On paper, Hong Kong is one of the richest cities in the world.
But it suffers from pervasive inequality, an acute housing shortage and waterlogged rents that successive governments have failed to resolve.
The average apartment in Hong Kong is about 500 square meters (46 square meters).
But many are squeezing into even smaller shared apartments – booths that can be as small as 50 square meters or even smaller, with shared bathrooms and showers in aging hallways.
It is this type of building where clusters have been located in recent weeks, which led to the first locking order.
In recent days, health representatives began conducting mandatory tests in about 70 buildings in the area, but the government has now decided to test them all.
The locking has created great confusion for the residents.
The imminent restrictions were leaked to the city’s local media on Friday, but there was no official statement from the government until Saturday morning when the lock had come in overnight.
Some media reported seeing residents leave the area before midnight, while others said locals were frustrated by the lack of clear information.
The area is also home to many ethnic minorities, mainly South Asian Hong Kongers, a society that is often exposed to discrimination and poverty.
Earlier this week, a senior health official sparked outrage when he suggested that ethnic minority residents could spread the virus more easily because “they like to share food, smoke, drink alcohol and talk together”.
Critics argued that poverty and lack of affordable housing that forced people to live in cramped conditions were to blame for the virus spreading more easily in these districts – not race or culture.
The health care remarks also came as a video of predominantly white migrants dancing at a packed brunch on the more prosperous island of Hong Kong sparked anger but no similar admonition from officials.