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Hong Kong tries voluntary COVID testing as cases surge

This past week, many Hong Kongers opened their front door to find a white plastic bag with a blue sticker exclaiming, “United, We Fight the Virus!”

Inside the care package were COVID-19 rapid antigen tests, a bundle of masks and Chinese traditional medicine. It was all part of a bid to encourage the city’s 7.4 million residents to voluntarily test over three days beginning Friday.

Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, said the three-day testing exercise will give health authorities a better sense of an outbreak that began in January. A note inside the package asked residents to do their part to help “ride out the storm,” adding that “hopefully we are seeing the arrival of dawn.”

The campaign is the latest mixed message from an administration scrambling to contain a punishing outbreak that has claimed more than 8,300 lives, many of them among the old and unvaccinated.

Lam had previously pledged to impose mandatory citywide testing of a kind that mainland Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen have undertaken. News of the mandatory testing — and a possible lockdown that some officials said would have to accompany it — sent Hong Kong residents running out to grocers and drugstores to stock up on supplies such as rice and pain medication.

The panic buying was so relentless that some of the Chinese territory’s biggest grocery chains asked customers to limit their purchases.

Now, residents are being encouraged to test and report positive results within 24 hours through an online self-reporting platform or by calling a number set up for the campaign. Health officials said they will decide whether to send someone to the hospital or to a quarantine facility based on the patient’s living environment and the health of others in their household.

Hong Kong is one of the last places in the world still enforcing isolation for coronavirus patients with mild symptoms, part of a broader, so-called “zero COVID” strategy that has been dictated by Beijing and remains focused on eradicating the virus from the community.

The government’s handling of the outbreak has touched a nerve among some residents who say it is just another example of Beijing’s tightening grip. The pandemic is coinciding with a sweeping crackdown in Hong Kong and a stifling of civic society.

Beijing has responded to Hong Kong’s latest outbreak by sending what it sees as necessary reinforcements. Construction workers were dispatched to build makeshift hospitals and temporary isolation facilities. Public health researchers arrived to weigh in on health policy. Hundreds of thousands of boxes of Chinese traditional medicine have been sent to the city.

The greatest reminder of Beijing’s sway in Hong Kong may be the continuing commitment to a zero-COVID approach as much of the world is opting to learn to live with the virus. Even as officials have indicated some flexibility by moving from mandatory testing to voluntary home testing, they are still responding rigidly to positive cases.

“We are still committed to zero COVID — at least officially,” said Karen Grépin, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health.

But, she added, “Empowering people to test, removing penalties of testing positive and providing more education are all things the government should be finding ways to promote in Hong Kong.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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