Mirroring a similarly virulent second wave that hammered Singapore in May and June, Hong Kong is suffering from a surprisingly intense second wave of the virus, with the city reporting 58 new local cases on Tuesday, with 24 of those coming from unknown origins.
Worries about the situation in Hong Kong prompted Bloomberg to report that the city state is surprisingly unprepared for the second wave, as its contact-tracers are struggling to track local cases to hot spots that are feeding the outbreak.
Unlike in Japan and the US, where mostly young people are becoming infected now, Hong Kong’s outbreak is affecting more older people than it did during the first round.
The median age this time is 55 years old, up from 40 in previous waves, and clusters are forming in nursing homes.
As the city scrambles to expand testing access, quarantine facilities and isolation beds, it has become clear that the long stretch of seeming to have dodged the coronavirus bullet (daily local infections never broke above 28 before July) has left its defenses dangerously low.
While the city reacted quickly to stop the spread of the virus by immediately implemented mask-wearing and social distancing, by the spring, complacency had set in and bars filled up as restrictions were relaxed. Hong Kong's recent uptick in new cases shows that contact tracers have no idea where many of these cases are coming from.
The city's ability to trace infections to certain hot spots during the first wave of the outbreak was widely credited for its success.
It's a phenomenon that's not unique to Hong Kong.
"Perversely, the more successful you are, you get the impression oh we don’t have the virus, we don’t have to worry about thinking of the basic precautions," said professor Peter Collignon from the Australian National University Medical School in Canberra.
"The more successful you are, the more you don’t keep on doing the things you need to do and so it comes back."
Even before the virus crossed into Hong Kong, the international city was in dire straits. Months of disruptive, often violent protests had warded off tourists and business travelers, and the city's economy was reeling from its worst slump since SARS when COVID-19 arrived in December 2019. Since the start of the outbreak, the political situation has grown even more precarious, as the US has retaliated against Beijing for imposing a new national security law on Hong Kong by ending the region's special treatment. The White House even considered targeting the HKD peg to the dollar.
Joblessness in HK is now at a 15-year high.
In total, Hong Kong has confirmed only 2,019 cases, far fewer than the numbers in neighbors like South Korea and Singapore. But HK's medical system is already coming under strain as the city scrambles to try and stop the virus from infiltrating old folks homes and other managed care facilities. So far, 14 deaths have been reported.
Hospitals have warned the situation is already critical as isolation beds and wards in public hospitals have already reached 80% capacity.
"Since there are more elderly patients during this wave of outbreak, isolation beds might be used up much sooner than in March," said Ian Cheung Tsz-fung, chief manager at the Hospital Authority, in a radio interview on Tuesday. "This week is crucial."
Because of this, the city's leaders have warned that HK may need to impose another lockdown, which would crush its already battered economy.
"The government did relatively well in handling the previous two waves of outbreak. But the relaxation of measures was too lenient and gave citizens a false sense of security, causing a huge outbreak this time,” said CUHK’s Hui. “This situation is grim."
Hong Kong did an admirable job confronting the virus during the early months of the outbreak. But when trying to suppress COVID-19, complacency is a serious danger.