Protests erupt after vacant complex tipped as housing for medical staff and potential carriers of coronavirus
Hong Kong was gripped in violence on Sunday night when protesters threw petrol bombs at an empty public housing complex in Hong Kong that had been earmarked to become a temporary quarantine zone to combat the Wuhan virus.
Before the epidemic spread across China, the city had faced massive demonstrations against the Beijing-backed Carrie Lam administration.
Still, trouble erupted after Lam announced anyone from Hubei, the central Chinese province where the outbreak began, would be denied entry until further notice.
She has faced growing criticism over her administration’s response to the crisis, including calls from some medical experts and politicians to close the border with the mainland.
At the weekend, Hong Kong did declare that the novel coronavirus was a public “emergency” – the city’s highest warning tier – and ramped-up measures to reduce the risk of further infections.
Among them was a plan to turn a newly built but currently empty public housing block in Fanling into a quarantine facility.
The buildings would be used to house people who may have come into contact with carriers of the virus as they wait to get tested, as well as frontline medical staff worried about infecting their families. So far, the city has diagnosed six positive cases of the virus.
A 47-year-old Hong Kong man had worked in a Wuhan market from January 16 to 23 and had a fever on January 20. He reached Hong Kong via express train and visited a hospital on the same day but he did not have a fever. He returned to hospital on Saturday and was found to be infected with the coronavirus. His wife and daughter will also be tested.
Dozens of local residents and protesters opposed to the idea of using the building as a quarantine facility held rallies outside the complex on Sunday. At one stage, fierce flames engulfed the entrance of two apartment blocks before firefighters got the blaze under control. Riot police were also brought in.
Later, the Centre for Health Protection said the plan to turn the housing estate into a quarantine zone would be suspended, according to AFP.
The agency has already turned a holiday park in an isolated rural area into a working quarantine facility. Two other holiday parks located away from major housing estates are also ready to be used as similar facilities.
But officials say they have struggled to find hotels and spare rooms for doctors and nurses working on the isolation wards where patients are being treated.
The virus outbreak comes at a time when Hong Kong is already boiling with widespread anti-government sentiment after seven months of often violent pro-democracy protests.
Chief executive Lam boasts record-low approval ratings while the police force is loathed in many neighborhoods.
The frequency and ferocity of protests have died down in the last six weeks, but sporadic clashes still take place.
On Sunday night, Lam’s administration announced sweeping measures to curb arrivals from Hubei province.
All mainland residents of the province, as well as anyone who has visited in the last fortnight, would be denied entry.
Nearly 300 people were killed by SARS in 2003, a tragedy that left a profound psychological impact on one of the most densely populated places on earth.
The city’s ability to combat the crisis was hampered by moves in mainland China to cover up and play down the outbreak, leaving a lasting legacy of distrust among many Hong Kongers.
Meanwhile, all primary and secondary schools, together with local universities and two key theme parks, in Hong Kong, were closed until February 17 as the deadly coronavirus spread across China.
In Macau, three new cases were reported on Sunday, raising the total infected to five. The new cases included a Wuhan woman coming from Hong Kong to Macau by ferry at 9am on Thursday. Two other Wuhan women arrived at Macau from Zhuhai on Wednesday and Thursday.
The Education Bureau in Hong Kong announced on Saturday that all kindergartens, primary, secondary and special schools will be closed for two weeks after the Chinese New Year holidays until February 16 to safeguard students’ health.
Local universities, including The University of Hong Kong, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, also announced that classes would resume on February 17.
The University of Hong Kong said non-local students should stay in Hong Kong in the next three weeks while those who were not in the city should not come back in the short term.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong suggested its students go home while those who decided to stay in dormitories had to fill in health declaration forms. The Hong Kong Polytechnic University said all staff and students should postpone their mainland trips and wear masks for 14 days after returning to Hong Kong.
On Sunday, Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park announced that they would close their facilities until further notice. The two theme parks said they would issue refunds to those who had bought tickets.
The two parks had suffered from a decline in the number of mainland tourists in Hong Kong during the second half of last year due to the confrontations between anti-extradition protesters and police. The government had recently proposed to inject HK$10.6 billion (US$1.36 billion) into Ocean Park, which suffered financially.
Hong Kong singer Andy Lau announced he was canceling concerts scheduled for February 15 and 28, in the Hong Kong Coliseum to avoid the possibility of spreading the virus. Another Hong Kong singer, Leon Lai, also announced he would postpone concerts scheduled for January 31 and February 1 in Macau.