Hong Kong’s crematoriums are nearly full after Covid surge

As the city closes in on 1 million infections in its current outbreak.
Image: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Hong Kong’s crematoriums are straining under the pressure of the world’s highest Covid-19 death rate, as the city closes in on 1 million infections in its current outbreak.

“Our crematoriums are working day and night, and they are already close to their capacity,” Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a briefing on Wednesday. “Within such a short period of time, we have seen so many deaths, and that would affect the logistics of funeral matters.”

The city’s health-care system has buckled under the weight of the outbreak, which has seen deaths exceed 4 630 — mostly elderly, unvaccinated, and care-home residents. The surge has already forced Hong Kong to start using mobile refrigerated units to store bodies after public mortuaries were overwhelmed.

Meanwhile, local media last week reported cases of body bags left next to hospital patients’ beds, prompting an apology from health officials who said measures had been put in place to speed up the transfer of bodies.

The financial hub will soon receive two deliveries of coffins by sea, Lam said, after Shenzhen’s lockdown sparked concerns about supply.

More broadly, Hong Kong officials are coordinating with their counterparts across the border to ensure a supply of essential goods, and Lam said her government would fully cooperate if Shenzhen implements more stringent virus measures to contain their flareup.

Nearing 1 million

Hong Kong has seen 962 581 cases in this outbreak, with the total jumping after the government released historical rapid-test results for the first time. More than 184 000 positive RATs from February 26 to March 5 were submitted to a self-reporting platform as part of a pivot to recognising those tests in tallies.

The official number compares with an estimate from researchers at the University of Hong Kong that 3.6 million Hong Kongers — about half the city — caught the disease through March 14.

Health authorities reported 29 272 Covid cases on Wednesday, as well as 217 deaths. The total number of fatalities in Hong Kong since the start of the pandemic rose to 4 846 and now exceeds deaths in mainland China.

The emergence of the highly transmissible omicron variant has thrown Hong Kong’s Covid Zero strategy, which it shares with mainland China, into disarray as surging case numbers overwhelm hospitals and exceeded the city’s ability to contract trace and isolate. Officials have maintained they will continue to pursue a zero-tolerance approach, even as they’ve walked back key pillars that underpin the policy.

It is “simply unrealistic” for Hong Kong to carry out the measures it used in previous waves due to the high case numbers, Lam said. The city’s future strategy for Covid or other public health crises will be guided by three areas: public health results, economic results, and people’s acceptance and tolerance of health measures, she said.

“I can’t see the economy torn into pieces,” she said.

Lam also said Hong Kong beaches will be cordoned off to prevent people gathering, though she currently has no plans to further tighten social distancing measures.

© 2022 Bloomberg

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