Hong Kong putting people returning from South Africa in quarantine camps

Several Hong Kong residents who returned from South Africa this week lashed out at the government’s decision to put them in quarantine camps, saying the move is unfair given South Africa’s low rate of confirmed Covid-19 cases.

About 10 returnees were sent to a government-run center after they landed Thursday and weren’t allowed to self-isolate at home. They are being charged HK$200 ($26) a head per day in an apartment complex with no hot water or fridges, and given food they say is “unedible.”

“I would go as far as to suggest that the ignorance and prejudice in the decision has now resulted in a direct threat to our health and even our lives,” said Colin Embree, a managing director at NBC Financial Markets Asia Ltd., a unit of National Bank of Canada. He is staying in a camp in the Yuen Long area with his family.

Hong Kong is requiring residents returning from South Africa, India and three other countries to remain in these camps for 14 days, arguing that the testing rate per capita in these areas is relatively low. Residents arriving from countries like the U.S. and the U.K., which have many more deaths and confirmed cases, are allowed to isolate at home.

Targeting Risk

“The government stresses that the quarantine arrangement targets the risk of infection but not the ethnicity of the returnees,” it said in a statement Saturday. “We will closely monitor the situation locally and overseas, and will review the arrangement as we gain more understanding about the test findings of recent returnees from South Africa.”

When asked about the living conditions, the health department said the quarantine centers are operated in compliance with infection control measures.

“Cleaning, disinfection and waste disposal will be carried out in accordance with the established procedures,” according to the statement.

The authority noted that the number of tests performed is about 6,800 per million population in South Africa, compared with about 32,000 in both the U.K. and the U.S. South Africa has recorded just 247 deaths, well below the more than 87,000 fatalities in the U.S. and 34,000 in the U.K., data from Johns Hopkins University show.

South Africa Push

The South African consul general in Hong Kong has said the decision is discriminatory and urged the government to remove it from the quarantine list given the country’s success in containing the virus, the South China Morning Post reported Friday. Other countries on the list include Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. The South African consulate didn’t return an email seeking comment outside of business hours Saturday.

Embree said his family is under a lot of stress, especially after a seven-week lock down in South Africa. The apartment they’re staying in lacks basic appliances like a fridge and microwave, and is full of dust and mold, he said in a phone interview. He and his family were tested for the virus at the airport and the results were negative.

Other returnees from South Africa share similar frustrations. Delphine Yip-Horsfield, an architect, who came back to Hong Kong on the same flight as the Embree family via Doha, questions the government’s decision.

“Why do returnees from the U.S., U.K. and Europe get to do home quarantines and do not need to go to government quarantine facilities when, without a doubt, they are clearly the highest risk groups?” Yip-Horsfield said in a text message. “We would gladly accept our fate if the numbers and facts correlate to the policy.”

Hong Kong’s 23-day streak without a case of local coronavirus transmission came to an end last week, reflecting the challenge of eradicating a virus that can spread undetected through carriers with no symptoms.

The case of a 66-year-old woman with no recent travel history dashed hopes that the city had successfully contained the virus after nearly four months of school closures and social distancing measures. The city has recorded just four deaths from the virus.

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Hong Kong putting people returning from South Africa in quarantine camps