Coronavirus quarantine unfairly targets South Africa, say Hong Kong returnees

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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 inedible.

“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.

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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 US and the UK, 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.

People wearing face masks walk at a down town street in Hong Kong Monday, March 23, 2020. (AP)
People wearing face masks walk at a down town street in Hong Kong Monday, March 23, 2020. (AP)

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 UK and the US South Africa has recorded just 247 deaths, well below the more than 87,000 fatalities in the US and 34,000 in the UK, data from Johns Hopkins University show. Other countries on Hong Kong’s quarantine list include Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

South Africa Push

The South Africa consul general in Hong Kong, Madoda Ntshinga, said that the Hong Kong government’s claim about his country’s low testing rate is misleading.

“South Africa is well prepared for any eventuality in terms of coronavirus pandemic outbreak, Ntshinga said in an emailed statement. “Even our quarantine facilities are well equipped and we are maintaining high standards of hygiene to look after those who are quarantined.

A passenger wears a protective face mask at the airport, following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Hong Kong, China, March 5, 2020. (Reuters)
A passenger wears a protective face mask at the airport, following the outbreak of the new coronavirus, in Hong Kong, China, March 5, 2020. (Reuters)

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 US, UK 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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