Sun, May 03, 2009 - Page 4 News List

Tensions escalate in Hong Kong’s swine-flu hotel

DPA , HONG KONG

A businessman trapped in a Hong Kong hotel where Asia’s first swine-flu patient was found spoke yesterday of escalating tensions among the guests who have been quarantined there for seven days.

The Hong Kong government took the radical step of sealing off the Metropark Hotel in the city’s Wanchai district on Friday night after confirming that a Mexican man who stayed there had the virus. The decision quarantined 240 guests and more than 100 staff.

Indian national Kevin Ireland, 45, said people had become agitated after first being told by staff that they would be kept in the hotel for only 24 hours and then learning from TV broadcasts that the quarantine period was a full week.

“This morning, there was a Korean gentleman, and he was way off the handle,” Ireland said from inside his hotel room. “He was screaming and shouting and throwing a tantrum. There is a young couple from the UK. She has been crying incessantly.”

“Then there is a South African couple with a 10-month-old baby and their grandmother. The wife was taken away for tests and they are really quite agitated,” he said.

Ireland, who runs a business called Indo-Spanish Marketing Services, said the atmosphere at the hotel changed dramatically in a short time as agitation among the guests rose.

“On Friday night, we were all laughing and joking and trying to make light of it,” he said. “That was when we thought it was only for 24 hours. Now it seems real, and we’ve all got jobs to do, lives to lead and responsibilities.”

The drama began as Ireland and two Spanish colleagues, visiting Hong Kong for a trade fair, tried to leave the hotel for dinner on Friday evening.

“Suddenly, we saw a lot of policemen and other people in protective gear in the lobby, and they said, ‘No, you can’t go out, and we advise you to put on protective face masks,’” he said.

“They weren’t letting people out, and they were keeping out people who wanted to come back in,” he said. “There were mutterings about swine flu. There was no clear information until much later.”

A sign in the lobby said guests would be kept in the hotel for 24 hours, Ireland said, but when he went to his room and switched on the television, he found out otherwise.

Tensions were fueled by the attitude of police in the hotel who were “brusque and standoffish,” he said.

“There are lots of people here from Spain and other countries who just don’t understand them,” he said. “They should be a little bit more gentle. At the end of the day, we just happened to be in the wrong place. They need to be a little bit more patient with people.”

Other concerns were also playing on his mind, he said.

“I haven’t told my daughters because why I don’t want to worry them,” he said of his seven-year-old and 12-year-old girls. “But one of my doctor friends told me to take it easy and not to fret. The problem is this was only supposed to be a short trip, and I didn’t bring books or enough to wear.”

That concern is shared by other guests, who may go to a help desk at the hotel where they can ask for necessities. Most people have been asking for fresh underwear, Ireland said.

“Today our rooms weren’t cleaned,” he said. “There is no room service. There is no change of linen, sheets or towels because they have no access to clean linen from outside.”

Asked what guests thought of the quarantine measure, Ireland said: “People think it is an overreaction. We have access to the Internet and news channels, and everyone is doing their own fact-finding.

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