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Hong Kong’s Covid-19 Regime Sparks Rush for Exit by Spooked Residents

Frances Yoon and Dan Strumpf wrote . . . . . . . . .

For Charles Murton, one of Hong Kong’s tens of thousands of expatriate residents, the city’s surprise decision to shut schools next month to test its 7.4 million people for Covid-19 was the last straw.

He has been drawing up plans to leave the city he immigrated to as a teenager, eyeing a move with his wife and two young children to Singapore, a perennial Hong Kong rival that continues to open its borders even as Covid-19 numbers there surge to record highs.

“The virus is something that you’ve got to live with, but that doesn’t seem to be the thought process here,” said Mr. Murton, a 41-year-old logistics executive.

For two years, Hong Kong largely shut out Covid-19 by at times banning travelers from certain high-risk countries, using lengthy quarantines for arrivals and social distancing, and isolating infected people and their close contacts—at the cost of effectively cutting off the global financial hub’s residents from the outside world. Now, after the Omicron variant punctured the city’s defenses, overwhelming hospitals and testing facilities, the city is tightening the screws in new and unpredictable ways to adhere to Beijing’s zero-Covid policy of stamping out the virus whenever it appears.

For residents frustrated by the lack of a clear pathway out of Hong Kong’s restrictions, the latest clampdown clashes with the picture in the U.S., Europe and other parts of the world, where governments are dismantling the most intrusive pandemic-control measures and seeking a return to a more normal life, aided by high vaccination rates.

Hong Kong’s heavy-handed response risks turning what has been a stream of residents leaving the city into a flood. Immigration data shows nearly 69,000 more Hong Kong residents have left the city than arrived this year, with almost 80% of those leaving in February, marking the biggest monthly drain since January 2020, when the data began. It isn’t clear how many have gone for good. The latest government figures available show the city’s population shrank by more than 75,000 in mid-2021 from a year earlier.

The scurry for the exit is visible in hastily canceled doctors’ appointments, children taking online classes while on the airport shuttle and a rush to find tenants to take over apartment leases. Ticket prices have soared for the few flights out of the city, with some travel agents saying that clients are more willing to consider any plane that gets them out of Hong Kong before the new measures are implemented.

The city’s residents contend with a pandemic-control arsenal with few parallels in the West. Most nonresidents are barred from entering, and returning travelers must pay for weekslong hotel quarantines no matter their test results or vaccination status. While other economies are ditching restrictions, Hong Kong has banned gatherings of more than two people and indoor dining after 6 p.m., and shut gyms, bars, hair salons and even campsites. Starting last Thursday, the unvaccinated can no longer shop in supermarkets and malls.

Despite these measures, the city has recorded more than 126,000 cases since Dec. 31 through Saturday, about 10 times the number of infections seen in 2020 and 2021 combined.

Under pressure from Beijing to end the outbreak, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced plans to test all the city’s residents three times in March, adopting a tactic that has proved effective on the mainland in identifying every carrier of the virus in a given area and putting them in isolation or hospitals.

The government said it needs the school campuses to process the one million tests a day required to achieve that goal. Still, the unexpected decision brings forward the summer holiday, wrecking the travel plans of families and creating uncertainty over university-entrance exams for final-year students.

City authorities will also commandeer hotels and empty apartment blocks and build isolation centers to house the tens of thousands of people who are expected to test positive in the mass screening campaign.

In a stark warning of what that might mean for families, an 11-month-old baby who tested positive was separated from her parents at one of the city’s public hospitals. The Health Authority said it wasn’t possible for the parents to remain with their daughter because both of them had tested negative. While the infant is now reunited with her parents, the incident rattled many parents who fear a similar outcome from the mass screening.

Doris Chiu, who runs a travel agency, said the risks of being forced into isolation pushed her to accelerate plans to move with her 4-year-old daughter to Washington, D.C.

“I want to avoid the citywide compulsory testing,” she said.

The Hong Kong native said she had lost faith in the government’s ability to manage the pandemic. “It’s going to be a mess,” she said. “It’s going to kill the economy further because they’ve pretty much [brought] everything to a standstill.”

Businesses have long complained about the government’s handling of the pandemic, saying travel and other restrictions had made it hard to recruit and retain employees. Industry experts say the latest shift in pandemic policy will likely make matters worse, accelerating a trend that has seen the number of regional headquarters of multinationals in Hong Kong drop by 5% since 2018—a figure reduced by the arrival of more mainland Chinese companies.

Yossi Shabat, 62 years old, plans to relocate to Manila after more than three decades in Hong Kong, motivated by the Philippines’ dropping its quarantine requirement earlier this year. “I cannot manage my company business here in Southeast Asia from home using MS Teams or Zoom. The relationship with the customer is impacted,” said Mr. Shabat, who works for an Israeli-American IT company.

“Hong Kong was known to be an excellent hub,” he said. “You could fly from here to everywhere freely. The last two years, it doesn’t happen anymore. It’s easier to take off to different places of the world, from either Singapore or Manila or Bangkok.”

To be sure, the end of Hong Kong as a global financial and commercial hub has been predicted many times before.

Joe Chu, Hong Kong manager of movers Vanpac GroupAsia, said that while inquiries about relocations from expats in Hong Kong are running at about double the usual level, he has seen big outflows of both Hong Kongers and foreign residents several times, notably during the SARS epidemic in 2003 and before the 1997 handover of the former British colony to China. He has also seen people return.

Like many of those The Wall Street Journal spoke to, including Mr. Shabat and Mr. Murton, Kevin Shee said his decision to leave Hong Kong could change if the government relaxes its policies.

Mr. Shee, who runs a storage business, said he is taking his family to Singapore and Bali in March and will make a final decision on whether to abandon Hong Kong further down the line.

“If the situation doesn’t improve by next year, and the quarantine rules are still rigid, I won’t return to Hong Kong anymore and live in Singapore,” he said.

Source : Wall Street Journal

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