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Hong Kong Faces a COVID-19 Catastrophe

As the city grapples with a deadly new outbreak, its residents are living a nightmare.

By , a reporter at Foreign Policy.
Residents have their samples taken at a makeshift COVID-19 testing station.
Residents have their samples taken at a makeshift COVID-19 testing station.
Residents have their samples taken at a makeshift COVID-19 testing station outside a residential building in Hong Kong on Feb. 17. Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Hong Kong grapples with a devastating COVID-19 outbreak, a Russian airstrike hits a maternity hospital in Ukraine, and South Korea elects a new president.

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Hong Kong Struggles to Contain a Disastrous COVID-19 Outbreak 

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Hong Kong grapples with a devastating COVID-19 outbreak, a Russian airstrike hits a maternity hospital in Ukraine, and South Korea elects a new president.

If you would like to receive Morning Brief in your inbox every weekday, please sign up here.


Hong Kong Struggles to Contain a Disastrous COVID-19 Outbreak 

As the omicron variant surges through Hong Kong, its residents have been living a COVID-19 nightmare. 

Hong Kong currently has the world’s highest COVID-19 death rate as its public health systems buckle under the pressures of the deadly new outbreak. Weeks of skyrocketing case numbers have completely overwhelmed hospitals and morgues while panicked residents have depleted grocery stores’ stocks. 

These developments are a devastating shift for Hong Kong, which had largely managed to contain infections prior to the omicron variant. Previously, the city had a total COVID-19 death toll of 213 people. That number has been eclipsed by this outbreak, which has already killed more than 2,300 people

The majority of the people who died were over the age of 60, according to health officials, while more than 90 percent of them were unvaccinated. This vaccine hesitancy has been fueled by the spread of misinformation and waning trust in the government, especially as Beijing continues to clamp down on Hong Kong’s political system

To curb the spread of the virus, the government has doubled down on China’s zero-COVID-19 approach, though its exact messaging is often contradictory. Despite pledging to unroll a mass-testing scheme in mid-March, Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, announced on Wednesday that there was “no specific time frame” for the plan

“Now, the situation is that planning and preparation are still underway, but it is not a priority to do [mass testing],” she said. “When to do it will be a collective decision and will take into account the opinions of experts.”

Within the city, public response to the government’s approach has been varied. Some of Hong Kong’s most vulnerable residents have resorted to sleeping outside to avoid infecting loved ones in their compact apartments, unable to find room in the government’s packed quarantine facilities. Others have evacuated the city, spurred by growing uncertainty and confusing government messaging

Authorities are now scrambling to construct makeshift isolation facilities and hospitals to help contain the outbreak. Their efforts come as the pandemic’s global death count surpassed 6 million people on Monday, a grim reminder of its immense human toll. 

“Many countries are facing high rates of hospitalization and death,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, World Health Organization director-general, tweeted. “With high transmission, the threat of a new, more dangerous variant remains real.”


What We’re Following Today

Mounting civilian toll. Ukrainian authorities said a Russian airstrike hit a maternity and children’s hospital on Wednesday, a bombing that killed at least three people and injured at least 17 others—and reflects the mounting human cost of the war. Moscow’s invasion has already killed at least 516 civilians and injured more than 900 people, according to the United Nations, although the actual death count is likely significantly higher.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the attack was proof of genocide. “What kind of country is this, the Russian Federation, which is afraid of hospitals, is afraid of maternity hospitals, and destroys them?” he asked.

South Korea’s new leader. South Korean voters have elected Yoon Suk-yeol, a political newcomer and member of the conservative People Power Party, to be the country’s next president. A former prosecutor, Yoon is expected to take a harder line toward North Korea and deepen the U.S.-South Korean relationship. He will begin his term in May.

As South Korea prepares to change leadership, the government has a key opportunity to chart a new foreign-policy course, as Kuyoun Chung and Andrew Yeo wrote in Foreign Policy earlier this week. In an era of geopolitical rivalries, the country’s traditional position of strategic ambiguity has become increasingly untenable.

Frozen oligarch assets. The British government announced new financial sanctions on allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday morning. Seven of Russias wealthiest insiders were subject to a full asset freeze, a prohibition on conducting transactions, and a travel ban.

The sanctioned oligarchs include Oleg Deripaska, Igor Sechin, and Roman Abramovich, who is the owner of Londons Chelsea soccer team. British officials said there would be legal provisions to ensure the team could still operate under the sanctions.


Keep an Eye On 

Australia’s climate emergency. Australia declared a national emergency on Wednesday after weeks of severe flooding slammed the country’s eastern coast, killing at least 20 people. With roughly 60,000 people under evacuation orders, the government said the declaration would allow authorities to quickly deliver aid to the hardest hit regions. 

“We are dealing with a different climate to the one we were dealing with before,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday. “Australia is getting harder to live in because of these disasters.”


Odds and Ends 

When Californian border authorities pulled over a truck for inspection, they were shocked to discover 52 live reptiles stashed in the driver’s clothing. The agents found 43 horned lizards and nine snakes hidden “in the man’s jacket, pants pockets, and groin area,” U.S. Customs and Border Protection said.

“Smugglers will try every possible way to try and get their product—or in this case, live reptilesacross the border,” said Sidney Aki, Customs and Border Protection director of field operations in San Diego.

Christina Lu is a reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

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