A 77-year-old man has become the first Hongkonger to die in mainland China from the coronavirus, the Hong Kong government said on Sunday, as thousands of the city’s residents remain stranded in the epicentre of the deadly epidemic.
The Wuhan resident’s death came as Hong Kong’s largest mainland-friendly political party and a trade union grouping said they had received hundreds of requests for help from pregnant women, families with infants, and chronically ill patients trapped in Hubei province, and in desperate need of assistance.
The Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) and Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) said they had received 683 requests in total – including from nine women at various stages of pregnancy – and that there was growing frustration at the government’s lack of help.
While it is not clear how many of these are overlapping cases, as some may have contacted both the FTU and DAB, it underscores the scale of the problem facing a government criticised for its handling of the crisis.
Four more people in Hong Kong were confirmed to have been infected on Sunday, bringing the city’s total to 74.
The administration has not announced any evacuation plans for some 2,700 Hongkongers who have been stuck in 10 cities across the province. On Saturday, it issued a vague statement saying the government was working on a “practicable” plan to bring them back “in batches”.
On Sunday, the Hong Kong government’s Wuhan Economic and Trade Office said it had contacted three pregnant women, whose due dates are in the next two months, to learn about their situations and health conditions, as well as offer them advice.
A spokesman said the three were staying in the cities of Xiaogan, Yingcheng and Qianjiang, and the Wuhan office had contacted the foreign affairs offices of those cities and requested they take care of the pregnant women.
“The Wuhan office will continue to strengthen communication with those groups of Hong Kong people with special needs with a view to providing them with practicable assistance,” a spokesman for the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau said.
According to the Hong Kong government, 10 Hongkongers, from three families, have been infected. Nine were being treated in local hospitals, with one in critical condition and the others stable. One person had been discharged.
A 77-year-old Hong Kong man, who lived in Wuhan, had died, the government said, and his family in Guangzhou had been contacted.
China announced an unprecedented plan to lock down provincial capital Wuhan on January 23, and quickly extended the travel ban to the whole province.
With the vast majority of the global 78,800 coronavirus infections reported in Hubei, there is no sign that the lockdown will be relaxed any time soon.
On Sunday, President Xi Jinping described it as the “greatest public health crisis” in the country’s modern history and warned against any complacency.
That means bringing quick relief for stranded Hongkongers will be difficult. Both the FTU and DAB said the most urgent cases were the pregnant women, who were scattered in less developed cities away from Wuhan.
A 34-year-old woman surnamed Kam is 5½ months into her pregnancy. She is in Huangshi city with her husband and two children, who are three and six years old, according to DAB legislator Elizabeth Quat.
“She told me that she dares not to go to local hospitals even when feeling unwell as she’s scared of getting infected,” Quat said. “The family has been so anxious, as they are almost running out of cash for supplements and daily necessities while the local banks are closed.”
According to FTU lawmaker Michael Luk Chung-hung, three families with infants under six months also said they had difficulties getting baby milk formula as many shops were closed.
While the Hong Kong government earlier said it would deliver medication to Hongkongers in Hubei, baby milk formula and other supplements for pregnant women were not on the list.
Even those getting help from the government complained about the waiting time, Luk said. A Hong Kong mother who was stranded in Yichang told Luk that her eight-year-old daughter suffered several epileptic seizures before her medication arrived.
“They had requested the government to have the medicines delivered to them almost a month ago since the lockdown, but only received them in recent days,” he said.
There are also at least 45 Hong Kong students trapped in Hubei, according to education sector lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, including three who have to sit the upcoming Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education exams, which are scheduled to start in late March.
He said the students and their parents were worried that missing the exams could affect their future.
“The question is, why is the Hong Kong government unable to give a clear plan after a month?” Ip said.
Political commentator Johnny Lau Yui-siu said Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor may feel it was “politically incorrect” to request the evacuation of Hongkongers at a time when the local authorities were told to double down on their efforts.
He said Lam should bring the case directly to Beijing and to evacuate at least those with special needs.
Another potential headache for the government was to find space to quarantine those returning from Hubei, Lau said.
Earlier efforts to bring home passengers on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan and quarantine them in empty public housing estates in Fo Tan had met stiff resistance from the local community.
Meanwhile, the city continues to grapple with fresh infections, with the total number reaching 74 confirmed cases.
That total could climb, after medical sources revealed late on Sunday that four Diamond Princess passengers had tested preliminary positive.
Earlier, four more people were confirmed with the coronavirus on Sunday, including two who had recently visited a North Point Buddhist workshop.
The Centre for Health Protection said one of the new cases was a 68-year-old man who recently flew back on a government-chartered flight from Japan.
Another was a 62-year-old man who lives in the Choi Tin House, Hing Tin Estate in Lam Tin. He is a security guard of the building, and has not travelled outside Hong Kong recently.
The man attended a company dinner with 17 other people on February 10 at the Silvercord shopping centre in Tsim Sha Tsui.
The other two cases both involve the Fook Wai Ching She Buddhist worship hall at Maylun Apartments on King’s Road in North Point.
An 80-year-old woman was confirmed to have been infected after visiting the worship hall on February 8. Another 76-year-old woman who lives in that building and also visited the Buddhist hall developed a fever on February 13 and is now confirmed to have been infected.
This took the total number of confirmed infections among those who have visited the Buddhist hall to four.
Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan from the Centre for Health Protection said about 30 people contacted the government because they had visited the worship hall recently and feared they could be infected.
Elsewhere, the number of cases continued to surge. In South Korea, Singapore and Iran, clusters of infections raised concerns among medical experts, who could not trace the point of origin.
World Health Organisation officials said China’s stringent crackdown bought time for the rest of the world to prepare for the new virus.
But as hotspots emerge around the globe, the difficulty in finding each source – the first patient who sparks every new cluster – might signal the disease has begun spreading too widely for tried-and-true public health steps to stamp it out.
“A number of spot fires, occurring around the world is a sign that things are ticking along, and what we are going to have here is probably a pandemic,” said Ian Mackay, who studies viruses at Australia’s University of Queensland.
That worst-case scenario was not here yet, the WHO insisted. It was not convinced countries outside China needed more draconian measures, but pointed to spikes in cases in Iran and South Korea to warn that time may be running out to contain the virus.
“What we see is a very different phase of this outbreak depending where you look,” the WHO’s Dr Sylvie Briand said. “We see different patterns of transmission in different places.”
Additional reporting by Alvin Lum, Phila Siu and Ng Kang-chung
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