Hong Kong medical workers strike to demand total border closure

Strikers say a full border closure is the best way to reduce the risk of the new coronavirus spreading to Hong Kong.

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    Supporters of medical workers hold a flash mob protest to back their strike to demand that Hong Kong close its border with China [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]
    Supporters of medical workers hold a flash mob protest to back their strike to demand that Hong Kong close its border with China [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

    Hong Kong, China – Standing at the picket line just 200 metres from her hospital entrance, Kaddy Chan wished she could report to duty as usual.

    For weeks now, the outpatient nurse and her colleagues have been grappling with shrinking supplies of surgical masks and hazmat suits, avoiding trips outside the wards to keep their protective gear free from contamination.

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    "If we don't close the border, no amount of resources would be sufficient to deal with the onslaught of sick people," Chan said.

    She was among the more than 3,000 members of a hospital workers' union who started a week-long strike on Monday - a last-ditch effort to pressure the government of this semi-autonomous Chinese city to completely seal the border with mainland China.

    Many here believe a full closure would be the best way to stem the influx of travellers infected with the novel coronavirus that has spread to every Chinese province, with more than 300 deaths and 17,000 confirmed cases reported.

    But authorities have said that fully closing the border would not be in line with World Health Organization (WHO) recommendations.

    With 16 confirmed cases, fewer than the number reported in neighbouring countries such as Japan and Thailand, Hong Kong may appear to have the outbreak under control.

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    Yet, the sense of alarm has been amplified by the territory's close ties with mainland China.

    Twenty-two years after the former British colony was returned to Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong has forged myriad connections with the mainland to facilitate the constant flow of goods and people.

    With the mainland just a 45-minute bus or subway ride away, many commuters and retirees lured by lower costs of living have made their home north of the border.

    According to some estimates, nearly one in five of the 7.4 million Hong Kong residents is a recent migrant from mainland China.

    Under the "one country, two systems" framework, authorities in Hong Kong can close off the border entirely but have called the move "impracticable".

    In response to the strike, authorities are set to close four more crossings by midnight on Tuesday, still leaving the airport and two other seaports open to mainland visitors. Last Sunday, the ports saw more than 7,000 crossings from the mainland as travellers returned from Lunar New Year trips.

    Hong Kong's proximity to the mainland contributed to the high casualties in the last epidemic that began in China: the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak of 2003. From a total of 8,100 cases, more than 20 percent were reported in Hong Kong, leading to the deaths of 299 people.

    To many in the city, the coronavirus outbreak is dreadful deja vu. Long queues of anxious shoppers snake around the blocks waiting to sweep up whatever boxes of surgical masks are available.

    While Singapore and Taiwan have rationed the sales of masks in a bid to calm the public, Hong Kong authorities have maintained that the market should dictate supplies and prices.

    But in recent days, officials' quibbling over the stock of surgical masks under government control has fuelled public anger.

    "People see this as total incompetence and that the government doesn't know what it's doing," Ma Ngok, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera. "This goes beyond distrust and has little to do with one's political view." 

    With the city still recovering after seven months of anti-government protests over a since-shelved extradition bill, fresh clashes have erupted between police and protesters over authorities' choices to locate quarantine camps close to residential areas.

    "It gives the impression that rather than take steps to prevent it, the government is preparing for the eventual outbreak," Ma added. "It just doesn't make sense".

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    Despite rumblings of looming strikes by immigration and excise officials and airline staff servicing flights to the mainland, the healthcare workers are, for now, the only group on strike.

    During the SARS outbreak, more than one in five patients was a healthcare worker, while one in five of those stricken lost their lives.

    Dissatisfied by what they see as the government's inadequate response, 6,000 more union members - all of whom are essential healthcare workers - have pledged to walk off the job on Tuesday for the rest of the working week.

    Inpatient nurse Koren Kwan dropped by the picket line on Monday morning before work to show support. But as an essential worker, she will stand on the picket line on Tuesday.

    "We're here fighting for public interest," said Kwan.

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    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News