Hong Kong virus (Getty)

Hong Kong Doctors Strike As Coronavirus Spreads

Visitors to Hong Kong who come from China will now be quarantined for 14 days without exception following widespread calls for Chief Executive Carrie Lam to do more as the Wuhan coronavirus spreads. The situation has escalated to the point where some Hong Kong doctors have even gone on strike to emphasize their demands for stricter actions to be taken.

Global Deaths From Coronavirus Are Increasing

At midnight Saturday, the order, the “Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance,” came into effect. The measure came following the first Hong Kong death from the virus on Tuesday. Globally, the number of fatalities skyrocketed from 67 to 492 from Tuesday to Wednesday with all but two in mainland China, as James Griffiths reported for CNN.

Doctors first began considering a strike at the beginning of February when the coronavirus had yet to claim a life in Hong Kong, yet doctors feared near-unrestricted access for mainland Chinese visitors would perpetuate and worsen the crisis. 

Hong Kong Medical Workers Unite

Benjamin So was one such doctor who prepared to strike, according to Quartz. Instead of reporting to work at Queen Mary Hospital, he quarantined himself in a hotel room after coming into contact with two patients diagnosed with the virus. At the time, Hong Kong had only 12 confirmed cases. That was only a week ago.

He took the drastic step of quarantining himself at his own expense in order to possibly prevent the spread, although such a measure seems ineffective at combating its inevitable transmission.

So was critical of Lam’s government — its lack of border controls and hospital oversight, in particular.

‘They Haven’t Had Clear Contingency Plans’

“I would say the Hospital Authority has been quite slow in responding to this outbreak and they haven’t had clear contingency plans…it shows how limited our resources are,” So said. “If a full community outbreak does happen there’s no way our medical system can deal with that.”

So was one of more than 6,500 nurses and doctors who vowed to strike if Lam’s government did not appropriately respond to the situation. Although initially Hong Kong closed six ports, it would only stop an estimated 10% of visitors from the mainland. Medical personnel would rather see all 14 ports closed, but so far, Lam refuses to take such a step, opting instead for a 2-week quarantine on arrival. On Monday, five more border crossings were shutdown, leaving three open: Hong Kong International Airport, the Shenzhen Bay joint checkpoint, and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge.

The effectiveness of this strategy remains to be seen. The last time the government enforced a quarantine, it was under far different circumstances. In 2008, the quarantine was not aimed at the outbreak of a single virus, but rather a list of 45 diseases. 

Medical Strike Began Last Monday And Is Growing

The strike began on Monday with 2,700 medical workers failing to report for work on Monday, forcing delays for cancer treatments and angioplasty surgeries. The next day, 7,000 were absent. 

Winnie Yu, chairperson of the Hospital Authority Employee’s Alliance, spoke on behalf of 9,000 workers in the union. 

“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,” Yu said, according to BMJ medical journal.

Yu was pessimistic about Lam’s government preventing the spread with only a partial border closure. Although medical services are being hindered by the strike, workers are likely to find support with a sympathetic general public, which overwhelmingly supports a border closure. The Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found 78% of 20,000 people in favor of a full border closure and 61% stood behind striking workers.

Lam Responds To The Strike

Lam responded to allegations that politics were driving her decision making by not closing off the city. According to Al Jazeera, Lam said 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.”

Furthermore, Lam made clear her position that her government cannot restrict visitors based on their race, saying “we have to treat them all equally.”

The crisis and standoff between doctors and the Hong Kong government is another battle of Lam versus the public. If her willingness to hold out on the Chinese extradition strikes is any indication, Lam will continue to do all she can to have her way, no matter the costs. This time, however, the consequences could be far more severe.