Hong Kong’s Lunar New Year is ruined by Omicron outbreak

Police officers stand by a flower market to prevent crowds from gathering. Image from inmediahk.net. Used with permission.

This year, the Chinese Lunar New Year is on February 1. Yet, thanks to the community outbreak of Omicron and the city’s zero-COVID policy, the mood around town is subdued rather than festive.

Only a few weeks ago, Hong Kong was hopeful for a normal Lunar New Year celebration as the city had sustained zero local COVID-19 infections for a few months.

Yet, such a “success” comes with a huge price as Hong Kong has been cut off from the rest of the world for the past two years thanks to its strict lockdown and quarantine policies. All inbound travellers have been required to stay in a list of designated hotels under a 14–21 day compulsory quarantine. The city also implemented compulsory mask-wearing in all public spaces, restrictions on public gatherings, contact tracking, community lockdowns, mandatory mass testing whenever a local infection is detected, and more.

In preparation for year-end gatherings, the majority of local residents had been vaccinated in preparation for the year-end gatherings. Wholesalers had ordered flowers and decorations to stock the year-end flower markets, plus, more than 500,000 local residents had downloaded the cross-border health code mobile application to prepare for the reopening of Hong Kong, Macau, and the mainland China border, hoping that they could visit their extended family during the new year break.

However, all these plans have been dashed. In the past two weeks, the city has seen outbreaks of both the Delta and Omicron variants of the coronavirus. 

A number of residential districts in Hong Kong have seen clusters of outbreaks. In Kwai Chung, the number of Omicron infections surpassed 300 as of January 26, forcing thousands of residents from 16 different building blocks to quarantine at home for seven days.

Unlike from previous local-transmission cases, which were transmitted through close contact, because Omicron is air-born and more contagious, the virus has spread vertically through buildings’ air shafts in Kwai Chung, as highlighted by Twitter user Nelson Lee: 

In alignment with Beijing’s zero-COVID policy, the Hong Kong government has tightened the pandemic restriction since early January to contain the spread of the highly contagious Omicron and Delta variants. 

Currently, all restaurants have been forced to stop providing dinner service after 6 pm; all public parks, libraries, and sports centres are closed; and all schools have shifted to online learning. Additionally, the government has imposed tougher quarantine rules on aircrew, meaning air cargo will be affected, and some supply shortages are expected. The government also announced that there will be no Lunar New Year flower markets, temple visits or dragon dance activities this year.

People all over Hong Kong are worried that they will have to line up for COVID tests and isolate for one week if a single case is found in their building, like what had happened to residents in Kwai Chung:

As Ben Cowling, an epidemiologist from the University of Hong Kong, pointed out, the zero-COVID contact tracing strategy is not effective in tracing the highly contagious COVID-19 variants:

Vaccination has become the key strategy for the government to tackle the current crisis. 

As of January 27, more than 70 percent of the city’s population have been fully vaccinated, and more than 78 percent have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccines. However, only about 30 percent of the elderly aged 80 or above are vaccinated. 

Experts have suggested at least a 90 percent vaccination rate target before pandemic restrictions are loosened, a goal which the government authorities hope to achieve by February 24

To further boost the vaccination rate, the government has introduced a vaccine bubble policy for schools, restaurants, government service contractors and more. 

Under the policy, all public and subsidized school employees are required to be vaccinated. The new policy will also prohibit face to face instruction until 70 percent of school kids are vaccinated. As for restaurants, all dine-in customers must show proof of vaccination before entering an establishment. Other public sector spaces such as libraries, markets and museums, and private sector facilities such as beauty parlours and gyms will also be put under the vaccine bubble.

However, some have argued the 90 percent vaccination threshold is too high as the majority of countries that have loosened pandemic restriction with a “living with COVID” mindset have a 70–80 percent vaccination rate.

Some also raised the question regarding the strategy in addressing the vaccine hesitancy among the elderly population who need the vaccine protection most. As finance news editor Mike Bird highlighted:

After two years of pandemic control efforts, more and more Hongkongers would prefer “living with COVID”. A recent poll conducted by the Democracy Party shows that 65 percent of the 600 respondents are in favour of the “living with COVID” policy, while  21 percent oppose the policy change. 

More and more people are frustrated that after two years, the pandemic restrictions have not been loosened:

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