Today, 3 February, over 2,000 health workers went on strike, after an overwhelming ballot held over the weekend in favour of action to press their two demands, and after the Government refused to meet with them:
1) The HKSAR Government must close its border with China to prevent more and more people infected with the Wuhan novel-coronavirus from coming in.
2) The HKSAR Government must secure sufficient masks, clothing and other equipment to enable hospital staff to carry out their work with sufficient protection against the virus.
With more health workers ready to join the strike tomorrow, the Government caved in dramatically this afternoon, closing the border except for lorries carrying goods and food into Hong Kong, but keeping the airport still open to all flights, including flights from China. The health union have rejected this, because the flights from China still enable virus carriers coming into Hong Kong.
The high level of anxiety, amounting to panic, is real and widespread, given that hundreds died of SARS here in 2003. The xenophobia against mainlanders is also a real and deepening sentiment, and fuelled by people’s perception that we have a puppet government controlled totally by Beijing.
Once again, ineptness by the HKSAR Government has made a difficult situation worse and has confirmed people’s mistrust and disgust of this unelected and dithering Government.
From one angle it might appear that the protesters are exhausted. The Lennon Walls have largely been stripped bare. Incidents of blocking traffic or firebombing Chinese banks have dwindled almost to zero. The water cannon vehicles have not been in use for weeks.
But no. Another crisis has hit Hong Kong – the Wuhan novel-coronavirus.
Whilst the Government’s attempts to ban facemasks have been rejected by the courts, the black facemasks worn by protesters have been replaced by pale blue and white surgical masks or N95 masks, with no more policemen forcing people to take their masks off.
Many cases have emerged, with a common thread – those falling ill have all travelled into Hong Kong from Wuhan. Some of their family members living in close proximity in Hong Kong are also falling ill.
The Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, previously blamed protesters for ruining the Christmas holidays. Now this virus has brought Chinese New Year celebrations all across Hong Kong and China to a dead stop. Shops and restaurants are deserted, and supermarket shelves were emptied day after day last week as people panicked, expecting the worst.
This virus has an unusually long incubation period of 14 days, and there may already be many infected people in Hong Kong who are not yet ill.
About 2% of those affected do not get a fever, making body temperature scanning at border checkpoints and the airport less than foolproof.
Masks are in short supply. Prices have rocketed tenfold. The Government continues to rely on “market forces” to deal with the supply of masks rather than take strategic steps to requisition them and channel them towards hospital staff and the most vulnerable sectors of the population.
Masks made by prisoners for government use have been found to be on sale on the streets much to the Government’s embarrassment. Rumours abound that most of the Government’s stock of masks have been shipped across the border to other Chinese cities.
Social media reports of mainland Chinese buying up masks in bulk in various overseas cities have added to Hong Kongers’ resentment of mainlanders.
A high profile case has really stirred up local discontent. An elderly couple in their 70s came from Wuhan to stay in the most expensive hotels in Hong Kong, including the Four Seasons, until they fell ill. Their daughter in Hong Kong, a top director in the financial sector, also fell ill.
People soon tracked the elderly couple down as fugitives on the run from China, wanted for corruption. They were totally unhelpful with the health service, refusing to state where they have been staying or people they have been seeing.
There are many social and economic links between Hong Kong and the rest of China. For example, 30,000 school children commute daily from Shenzhen across the border to attend schools in Hong Kong; many day traders coming over to buy milk powder, seafood and other sought-after items. Hong Kongers as well as people living in Shenzhen commute across the border for work or study.
The wealthy on both sides travel frequently across the border for business and leisure purposes, while relying on domestic helpers from Shenzhen coming over to care for children or the elderly. Closing the border completely is like trying to turn the clock back on decades of increasing economic integration.
This necessary temporary move should have been in place a week ago. The exertion of union power to force the Government’s hand is a significant victory, and the Government’s hypocritical moral lectures about Hong Kongers discriminating against our compatriots is actually adding fuel to reactionary sentiment against ordinary people from the mainland.
So the protest movement has adjourned for now. It is still a thorn in the side of the government, waiting for a future opportunity to press its demands for a full inquiry into the Government’s mismanagement and police brutality.