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Residents volunteer to take the temperature of passengers at a border town in Hong Kong following the outbreak of a new coronavirus [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]
Public health workers in Hong Kong have stepped up a strike to demand the total closure of the border with mainland China after the semi-autonomous Chinese territory reported the first death from the novel coronavirus.
The hospital workers’ union said more than 7,000 hospital employees had walked off the job as the week-long strike entered its second day on Tuesday.
With 17 confirmed cases in Hong Kong, the first death also makes for the highest fatality rate in China, where the overall death rate hovers at 2 percent. In Hubei Province, whose capital city Wuhan is the epicentre of the outbreak, there have been 414 deaths out of 13,522 cases.
The National Health Commission in Beijing so far has registered 427 fatalities in mainland China from more than 20,485 cases. The additional 64 new deaths announced late on Monday marked the biggest single-day increase since the virus was first detected in late December.
As both confirmed cases and death tolls climbed, China conceded to “shortcomings and difficulties” in its response to the outbreak of the flu-like infection.
In Hong Kong, the victim was a 39-year-old man who last visited Wuhan the day before it was ordered closed off from the rest of the country in an attempt to contain the outbreak. The man then took a high-speed direct train from Changsha, the largest city in the province to the south, back to Hong Kong.
Health officials here said the condition of the man, who had diabetes, took a sudden turn for the worse overnight on Monday and ordered an autopsy to better understand the cause of death.
His death has rattled nerves in the middle-class community where he lived, one of the oldest and most tight-knit residential compounds in Kowloon. His extended family live just three floors below the victim’s home.
His 72-year-old mother is believed to have contracted the virus from her son and is in a stable condition in hospital. His other family members have remained in quarantine off-site.
Call for stricter screening
Meanwhile, at the nearby Hong Kong Polytechnic University, district councillor Owan Li challenged school officials’ plan to house returning mainland students under the same roof as locals. Although the campus will remain closed until late March, some students have already arrived after spending their Lunar New Year break north of the border.
“We question if university halls are a suitable site for quarantine,” Li told Al Jazeera. “We’re calling for stricter screening measures to identify potential infected.”
While Hong Kong authorities worked late on Monday night to shut down all but three of its border crossing points with the mainland, public support for a full closure remained strong, giving a boost to the striking health workers leading the campaign.
Rolling poll results released by Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, which surveyed 20,000 respondents from last week until Tuesday, showed that 78 percent backed full border closure and 75 percent were dissatisfied with the government’s handling of the outbreak.
Chief executive Carrie Lam hit back at a media conference on Tuesday.
“I certainly would not agree with the allegation that we are not addressing this public health concern adequately,” Lam told reporters. “Certainly I do not agree with the allegation that we are putting politics above public health.”
Meanwhile, 61 percent of respondents said they supported the strike as a means to pressure the government to change its policy.
At lunchtime, dozens of office workers who have taken part in the months long anti-government protest movement in Hong Kong, had a new rallying cry.
“Close the border; say no to China,” they shouted from the atrium of a glitzy mall in the heart of the business district.
By nightfall, a protest by residents hailing from the working class neighbourhood near to one of the crossings that remain open ended in clashes with riot police. A district councillor said on his Facebook page that he had been hit by a rubber bullet.
Of the 17 patients being treated for the coronavirus in Hong Kong, seven are residents of mainland China.
Health officials have said the next two weeks will be a critical window in terms of fighting the spread of the virus in local communities.
A major developer in Hong Kong has announced the suspension of all construction projects for two weeks. In neighbouring Macao, a regional gambling hub where there have been 10 confirmed cases, authorities have shut down the casinos for two weeks.
Also on Tuesday officials announced the first two confirmed cases, on top of two suspected cases, of person-to-person transmission. Both patients had travelled outside the city two weeks before falling ill. Fourteen days is believed to be the maximum incubation period for the disease.
Nearly 600 people are subject to health monitoring. All told, the public health system has between 500 and 800 beds in isolation wards required to house patients confirmed to have the virus.
For many Hong Kong residents, the 2003 SARS epidemic still looms large. With a death toll of 299, the city had one of the highest fatality rates in the world at 17 percent, nearly three times that of mainland China, where the outbreak started.
The head of the Hospital Authority Dr Tony Ko sidestepped questions on whether striking workers would face punishment, although the city’s constitution enshrines the right to participate in strike action.
Joined on the picket line by half of her colleagues from the ward where she works – 30 in all – Cactus Chiu, a second-year nurse at neonatal ICU, said she was prepared to pay a personal price for the public good.
“We’re guided by nothing but our conscience and professional ethics,” said Chiu. “We’re taking this step because we hope to save more lives.”
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