Hundreds of medical workers began a five-day strike in Hong Kong yesterday to demand the government shut the border with mainland China to prevent the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) and ease pressure on a stretched health sector.
Hours after the strike began, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) announced the closure of four more border crossings with mainland China, leaving just three checkpoints open, but stopped short of demands for the entire border to be closed.
“We should be united if we have the same goal. At this critical moment, [some people are] taking extreme means and it is inevitable it will affect the rights of patients,” Lam said. “Those using extreme means to try to force the government’s hand will not succeed.”
Striking workers at the Hospital Authority building booed as they watched Lam speak, calling her a liar and chanting: “Close all borders.”
The workers, members of the newly formed Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA), held a news conference shortly after Lam spoke and said they planned to keep up their strike action.
HAEA, which has about 18,000 members, said 2,400 workers took part in the strike, despite calls by the government for medical workers not to.
HAEA chairwoman Winnie Yu said she expected about 9,000 members to strike today.
Hong Kong has 15 confirmed cases of 2019-nCoV.
HEPA’s demands are for the government to close the border with the mainland, facilitate the distribution of masks to the public, ensure that front-line medical workers have adequate supplies and protection, provide enough isolation wards for patients, and guarantee no reprisals for striking staff.
The union also said its members have flagged dangerous situations that have occurred due to a large number of suspected cases of the coronavirus, including lack of personal protective equipment and designated quarters for staff handling isolated patients.
Deacons Yeung, the Hospital Authority’s director of cluster services, said that emergency services remained normal and authorities had activated a “major incident control center” to monitor the situation, according to RTHK.
About 100 people rallied in the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district in support of the union, with some holding banners saying: “Close Borders, Contain Epidemics.”
Panic-stricken residents have emptied shelves in major supermarkets, stockpiling meat, rice and cleaning products as fears escalate over 2019-nCoV. About 90 percent of the territory’s food is imported, with the bulk coming from the mainland, according to official data.
Toy shop owner Lam Wa-yin, 45, said that closing the border would intensify worries about supplies of staples.
“They’ve started rushing to buy supplies even before they fully close the borders,” Lam said. “It’ll get worse if it is fully closed. Especially food, people have been rushing to buy oil, salt and rice, not to mention the face masks.”
Meanwhile, three-quarters of US business leaders polled said they wanted Hong Kong to shut the border with the mainland, according to a survey of 156 executives by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong released yesterday.
Carrie Lam has said such a move would be “inappropriate and impractical” as well as “discriminatory.”
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