Data collected by Johns Hopkins University shows an alarming spike in coronavirus-related deaths in Hong Kong, with the death toll from the virus suddenly taking a worrying turn over the past four weeks. In the last 24 hours alone, the data shows a total of 283 deaths – on February 12, there were just 11. Almost 4,000 people have died in the last two weeks, with Hong Kong now reporting the highest daily death tolls in the world.
So what has led to this sudden wave of severe illness?
The publication of this data in chart-form on social media sparked a frenzy of concern over an emergent mutation of the illness, and one that might be far more deadly than anything we’ve seen before.
Reports of a new “stealth” Covid variant have caused concern, with some saying a new mutation could be circulating with greater transmissibility than ever before.
However, experts have clarified that the crisis facing Hong Kong is not caused by a new variant: it is the direct result of insufficient vaccine programmes and the ‘zero-Covid’ policy which has dominated the region’s approach since the early days of the pandemic.
In fact, cases – believed to be predominantly caused by the Omicron variant – are rising dramatically right across China, with authorities placing some areas under fresh lockdown orders.
In Hong Kong, the picture emerging is grim. Health workers are reporting morgues overflowing with bodies, and workers in hazmat suits dumping corpses in shipping containers.
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Reports from hospitals have claimed bodies have been abandoned on the floors in hospitals, and doctors and nurses desperately fighting to save those still breathing.
Critics are blaming Hong Kong authorities for adhering to the ‘zero-Covid’ policy for too long.
While the rest of the world faced the virus with a combination of vaccines and natural immunity, seeing the death rate from Omicron far lower than previous variants in most countries, Hong Kong doggedly held on to measures designed to stop the spread entirely.
The fundamental root of the problem, experts say, is that the Chinese territory didn’t use the time bought by ‘zero-Covid’ to vaccinate the most vulnerable.
While 91 percent of adults between the ages of 40 and 59 have received two doses of a Covid jab, just 65 percent of people aged 70 to 79 have, and only 36 percent of the over 80 age group is double jabbed.
The numbers on boosters – widely accepted by the scientific community to offer the best defence against the Omicron variant – are even worse: just 11 percent of over 80s have received a booster.
If you compare this to England – where 91 percent of the over 80 population has been boosted – a picture begins to emerge of just how wrong the Hong Kong vaccination programme has gone.
A drive was eventually implemented in Hong Kong to protect older people, but Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, said it was “too little, too late”.
Mr Cowling said: “We’re catching up with the wave, when we could have been ahead of it.”
Other countries in the region faced similar challenges after preventing any Covid cases for so long, but most have managed to get ahead of this wave with a wide-reaching vaccine drive.
Singapore last summer became the first Asian country to abandon zero-Covid before it was hit by a large wave of the Delta variant in the autumn, while New Zealand shifted away from the policy when the Omicron surge took hold in January.
Both nations this month eased travel restrictions that were central to their previous zero-Covid strategies, yet Hong Kong’s strict controls on entering the city remain firmly in place.
Rod Jackson, professor of epidemiology at the University of Auckland, said: “Public health measures and closed borders could only carry us so far, we knew that vaccination was the route back to normality.”
He added: “New Zealand’s success compared with Hong Kong is a reminder that the three most important defences against the pandemic are: vaccination, vaccination and vaccination. It’s the only sustainable intervention.”
Hong Kong’s adherence to a zero-Covid strategy has been driven in large part by the need to maintain links with the Chinese mainland, where eradicating the virus is still government policy.
China, where around 40 per cent of over-80s are unvaccinated, is also contending with its worst Covid outbreak of the pandemic.
The severity of the ongoing Omicron outbreak in China has cast a stark light on the ongoing possible effects of the virus on an unvaccinated population.
Michael Baker, an adviser to the New Zealand Ministry of Health, said: “Omicron is milder than Delta, but it’s not mild by any stretch of the imagination.
“It’s really less severe because of the vaccines and the boosters. Without them, we’d all still be in a whole lot of trouble.”