15,000 Hong Kong Medical Workers Threaten Strike Unless Border Closed to Coronavirus

A member of the medical staff, wearing protective clothing to help stop the spread of a deadly SARS-like virus which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, stands at an entrance to Princess Margaret Hospital in Hong Kong on January 26, 2020. - Hong Kong on January 25 classified …
PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images

Over 15,000 medical workers in Hong Kong announced on Wednesday their newly-formed union will go on strike unless the border to China is completely sealed to prevent the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus.

Hong Kong has encountered eight cases of the Wuhan virus so far, many of them arriving via its high-speed rail link with China. On Tuesday, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam announced the train and ferries to China would be suspended beginning on Thursday and the number of flights to China would be cut in half. The formerly bustling rail station in Hong Kong has already become eerily deserted.

Lam wore a medical face mask while making this announcement, presumably to demonstrate how seriously her government is taking the coronavirus threat. Hong Kongers immediately criticized her for wearing the mask given they are in extremely short supply, in part because many of Hong Kong’s supplies were sent to China after the Wuhan outbreak began.

Lam’s critics also remain deeply concerned that her administration will not completely seal the border with China, so it is trying to get the public accustomed to wearing masks and tolerating quarantine facilities in crowded areas as infected people trickle in from China.

Protests broke out at the rail station and nearby roads on Wednesday, with the participants denouncing Lam’s actions as half-measures and demanding full closure of the border with China until the epidemic abates. 

Ironically, the protests were relatively small compared to the past eight months of demonstrations in Hong Kong because so many people are sequestered in their homes to avoid exposure to the virus. They were still large enough to create significant disruptions in Hong Kong rail and road service. Some protesters physically blocked railroad tracks with their bodies or threw debris onto the tracks to slow down trains.

The HA Employees Alliance (HAEA), a new union of healthcare workers with over 15,000 members, said on Wednesday it will call a strike if the border with China is not sealed. The Hong Kong Free Press reported a huge crowd of people assembled outside union headquarters and waited in line on a frigid day for up to eight hours so they could join the union.

“The perseverance of Hong Kong people is strong – you made us, and the whole of Hong Kong see hope,” HAEA said in a statement. Thanks to the membership surge, the alliance estimated that it now includes over ten percent of all Hong Kong Hospital Authority staff.

HAEA said it generally agrees with the measures taken by Lam, but firmly insisted upon “the refusal of all entries to Hong Kong via China.”

“The goal of such a measure is to prevent any non-Hong Kong resident from entering Hong Kong via China without a crucial purpose, and if such entry to Hong Kong is deemed unavoidable, each case should be reviewed independently on whether his [or] her entry should be granted,” the union said. 

“As for Hong Kong citizens returning to the city from China, stringent health monitoring measures should be implemented,” it added.

HAEA noted that Hong Kongers are particularly wary of the Wuhan virus because the SARS epidemic is believed to have spread to Hong Kong because a single infected individual arrived on a bus from China to attend a wedding. 

The Wuhan virus is not as deadly as SARS, but it appears to be far more contagious. With at least 6,000 known infections in over a dozen countries tallied up on Wednesday, the Wuhan virus has already infected almost as many people in two months as SARS did during its entire run. The virus has killed 132 of those patients so far, compared to about 800 for SARS.

“Coronavirus can be transmitted by people showing no symptoms, and a top British infectious disease specialist said Monday that the actual number of cases around the world could be close to 100,000,” CBS News noted grimly.

The expert in question, Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, explained his estimates are much higher than the official figures because the virus can be carried for a considerable period of time before symptoms become apparent, and too many people were allowed to travel out of Wuhan during the early stages of the outbreak when the Chinese Communist Party was still insisting the disease could not be spread by human contact.

“Sooner or later we will get a case,” Ferguson said this week of the outlook for the United Kingdom. “There are very large numbers of Chinese tourists across Europe right now. Unless the Chinese manage to control this, and I’m skeptical about whether that is possible, we will get cases here.”

The most dire scenario from epidemiologists predicts the Wuhan virus will spread globally and become a “new human virus,” a permanent recurring feature of human life, if it cannot be contained in the outbreak region in China. China’s health minister admitted on Sunday that the virus may already be mutating and becoming more infectious, a development that could make containment extremely difficult.

Shanghai’s chief infectious disease expert, Dr. Zhang Wenhong, gave an extraordinary press conference on Wednesday (while wearing a face mask) that stressed the importance of keeping the virus bottled up in China’s Hubei province. If this can be accomplished, he predicted the outbreak could be brought under control in three months or less. 

Unusually for a Chinese official, he openly suggested shipping senior Communist Party officials to the front lines of the outbreak so they have skin literally in the game. “Party members swore an oath to put the public welfare first. Now it’s time for them to step up,” he said.

Zhang was more optimistic than most experts that containment is still possible, but he noted that if the virus escapes and mutates again, it will become almost impossible to trace the infection, and if that happens, a “very dangerous” situation will occur around the world.

“What we want to do is erase the virus from the human realm, driving it back into nature, back to the wild, back into its cave. When can we manage to do that? It’s hard to tell. At present, we can only hear the clock ticking without knowing what time it is,” Zhang said. 

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