Fear has rippled through Hong Kong following the territory’s first death from coronavirus, as authorities imposed a mandatory 14-day quarantine for everyone arriving from mainland China, where more than 500 people have died in the outbreak.
“We are of course worried,” said a woman who lives in the same block as the 39-year-old man who died on Tuesday. “I will step up sterilising measures at home . . . wash my hands more often.”
As thousands of people queued to buy surgical masks, Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, warned that the situation had “entered a critical new stage” after the number of new cases jumped by six in two days to reach 21 on Wednesday. “It is worrying . . . the coming 14 days will be key,” she said.
None of the three most recently infected people had travelled during the incubation period, indicating that the virus is spreading within the territory. The 72-year-old mother of the man who died on Tuesday is thought to have caught the virus through contact with her son.
Ms Lam invoked special powers under Hong Kong’s Prevention and Control of Disease Ordinance to impose the 14-day quarantine on everybody crossing one of the busiest borders in the world from Saturday. However, she did not say how Hong Kong intended to accommodate the people requiring quarantine.
Ms Lam said the number of people crossing from mainland China had dropped off sharply from 170,991 on January 29 to 28,675 on Tuesday.
The latest move came two days after Ms Lam closed most border crossings with the mainland, falling short of demands by striking health sector workers who have demanded that the frontier be sealed entirely. The effort to drastically reduce contact with mainland China also threatens to deal a heavy blow to the economy of Hong Kong, which is already in recession.
Ms Lam is under intense pressure following months of anti-government protests last year. Her response to the months-long political crisis sapped trust in the administration, helping to fuel the anxiety among Hong Kongers still scarred by the Sars outbreak in 2003 that killed 299 people in the city.
“The past seven or eight months of ongoing social unrest have torn the social fabric and . . . trust in the authorities,” said Gabriel Leung, dean of medicine at the University of Hong Kong. That “makes fighting an epidemic of this magnitude and velocity extremely difficult”.
The coronavirus is spreading much more quickly than Sars, infecting a total of 27,907 people in mainland China and killing 563 in the country according to the latest tally on Thursday morning. Outside the mainland, however, the spread has been limited, with less than 250 confirmed cases.
Thousands of people queued in Hong Kong for masks being offered by a trading company, Luck Well International, on Wednesday while shops put up signs announcing they had run out of disinfectant, sanitiser and other products.
An online rumour prompted a run on toilet paper and tissues, with shop shelves empty in a number of stores.
In another dislocation, a cruise ship with some 1,800 people on board was quarantined at a terminal in Hong Kong after dozens of crew members said they felt unwell.