Hong Kong’s zero-COVID fight takes mental toll on society, experts say

Infections have surged to record highs with more than 500,000 infections and more than 2,500 deaths – most of which have been in the past two weeks.

Hong Kong resident Yeung waited for 13 hours outside a hospital in the city’s eastern district in cold, rainy weather with his 3-year-old daughter, who had a high fever, before they could be admitted for COVID-19 treatment. By the time they could enter, her fever had gone down and she didn’t require medical attention.

Yet the 42-year-old utilities worker had to stay in the hospital for four nights without a bed, because he and his daughter were not allowed to leave. They were then sent to a government isolation centre for nine more days. His biggest stress came not from becoming infected, but leaving his wife and 22-month-old, both with COVID-19, at home without any support.

“My wife suffered a lot. Her symptoms became more serious because of the hardship of taking care of the baby and no time to rest,” said Yeung, who declined to give his full name because of the sensitivity of the matter. “She said she would jump down the building if no one came back to support her.” Yeung’s tale is one of many in the global financial hub, which has some of the world’s most stringent coronavirus regulations more than two years after the pandemic started.

Infections have surged to record highs with more than 500,000 infections and more than 2,500 deaths – most of which have been in the past two weeks. The mental wear and tear for many of the city’s 7.4 million residents often comes not from getting the virus but from the policy and messaging from authorities, prompting panic and anxiety, health experts said. For instance, the Hong Kong government insisted for a time that infected children, no matter how young, must be kept in isolation.

“At the cost of keeping us safe physically … It seems perhaps they have lost sight of the humanity in it. For all these measures, there is this underlying fear,” said Dr Judy Blaine, wellbeing specialist at Hong Kong consultancy Odyssey.The burden falls more disproportionately on society’s most vulnerable, such as domestic helpers, migrant workers and low-income residents – many of whom live in tiny subdivided apartments with elderly parents and their children.

Four out of five low-income families said they faced huge COVID-related stress over the past month, according to a survey by local charity the People Service Centre. More than 900,000 students are now home from school again. Playgrounds and most are venues shut, parents are struggling to work from home and teachers are warning of the long-term repercussions of keeping children out of class. Food prices have shot up after vegetable shortages in February, and supermarkets have been emptied for more than 10 days as anxious residents stock up amid worries of citywide lockdown.

Some domestic helpers have been forced out of their employers’ homes after contracting the virus, while some residents have slept on rooftops and in stairwells so they don’t transmit COVID to relatives, local NGOs said.”The pandemic has not been a day or two, it has been two years and the lack of supplies and support from the government has made everyone panic,” said Sze Lai Shan, who works for the Society for Community Organization, which supports low-income families.

“The feelings of helplessness creates more panic sentiment,” she added, with many people facing financial hardship as they cannot work.Calls to Red Cross support hotlines have skyrocketed in the past two weeks as COVID infections surged, said Dr Eliza Cheung, one of the organization’s clinical psychologists.

Most are elderly residents from low-income households and families who were already vulnerable before the latest outbreak. Many worry they are running out of food and daily necessities, and feel helpless. “The sentiment is pretty desperate by the time they reach us. They have already tried a lot of means to look for different kind of resources.. they have come to the stage where they only have two days of food left in the family and they don’t know what to do,” Cheung said.

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