Monday, 27 January 2020

Shocking Estimates of Wuhan Coronavirus

Gabriel Leung (left) says there could be as many as 44,000 cases in Wuhan
Today is the third year of Lunar New Year, and in Chinese superstition, you're not supposed to go outside for fear of starting up arguments that could result in bad luck and ruin the rest of the year.

And it would be pretty justified to stay in considering the mounting fears of the Wuhan coronavirus spreading faster and further than currently reported.

This afternoon infectious disease experts from the University of Hong Kong estimate that the number of patients in Wuhan had reached 43,590 by Saturday, including those in the incubation stage of the virus, which causes pneumonia.

The Wuhan market that maybe ground zero for the coronavirus
So far the number of reported cases in the country is 2,880 as of Monday, and 81 dead. That's a huge discrepancy, but lead researcher and dean of HKU's faculty of medicine Gabriel Leung said his team estimated there were 25,630 patients showing symptoms in Wuhan, and that the number would double in 6.2 days. This is according to mathematical modelling based on infection figures worldwide as of Saturday.

The big issue is that unlike SARS, the Wuhan coronavirus is difficult to detect because it is infectious during the incubation period, and that those who are infected may not show any symptoms like elevated temperatures.

If there are 44,000 cases in Wuhan alone, how many could there be nationwide and worldwide? 

Leung and his team's research showed self-sustaining human-to-human transmission was already happening in all major mainland cities and warned a pandemic might be close. 

The Forbidden City in Beijing is closed indefinitely
"We have to be prepared, that this particular epidemic may be about to become a global epidemic," he said.

The team's model predicted the number of infections in five mainland megacities: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Chongqing, would peak between late April and early May. At that time, as many as 150,000 new cases could be confirmed everyday in Chongqing because of its large population and the intense travel volume with Wuhan.

Leung said the estimates could be too pessimistic,  as it only took into account the lockdown in Wuhan and not travel and health advisories in other cities and provinces, but in the meantime he is advising the Hong Kong government to take more severe measures to stop the virus from coming into the city and spreading.

"So, the question is not whether or not to do more... Yes, we must do more. The question really is, how can we make sure that is feasible, implementable and enforceable," he said, adding the government's task now was to study practical plans, like the logistics of importing food and supplies.

Premier Li Keqiang visited medical staff, patients in Wuhan
Meanwhile I am hearing from relatives and friends who are currently vacationing abroad that they cannot find masks in pharmacies -- they are sold out in places like London and Taipei. While the Hong Kong government claims it has enough masks, locals have trouble finding them, or are in shock as the inflated prices.

Maybe shops will have supplies by Wednesday when business is supposedly back to normal after Chinese New Year?

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Fear Marks the Year of the Rat

Practically everyone using public transport wears a mask for prevention
It's the second day of the Year of the Rat and everyone in Hong Kong is obsessed about the Wuhan coronavirus. No one seems to care or notice that there are no fireworks or the Chinese New Year Parade was nixed, but are constantly checking their phones for updates on any new cases.

Restaurants should have been doing a brisk business today with family gatherings, but some cancelled in case they felt unwell, or were worried about being in public areas. I had made a late lunch reservation for dim sum for 1pm weeks ago and the restaurant warned me that we may have to wait, but instead we were seated to our table -- earlier than the appointed time.

Screenings have stepped up, but is it enough?
Practically everyone is wearing masks on the streets, over 90 percent on the MTR and buses. The reminder to step up hygiene is a good one, though I feel for the cleaning staff who need to put in the extra effort to make sure things are clean more frequently.

As of 11.15pm, Hong Kong has eight cases, all of them related to Wuhan. Local medical experts are pushing the government to limit the city's exposure to people from Wuhan and China, but the authorities say closing off borders completely is impossible.

"If we still only focus on cutting ties with Wuhan, our prevention work is doomed to fail. The largest threats to Hong Kong are from [neighbouring] Guangdong province and Shenzhen," said Dr Arisina Ma Chung-yee, president of the Hong Kong Public Doctors' Association on a radio program forum.

She called on the government to launch crowd control measures, like reducing the frequency of trains and buses across the border and forcing travelers from Wuhan to undergo mandatory monitoring for 14 days. And a few minutes ago, Hong Kong has just announced it is barring anyone coming from Hubei province in the past 14 days to enter the city except for Hong Kong residents.

Protesters set up roadblocks in Fanling this evening
Earlier, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan Siu-chee said closing the border was completely impractical.

"[The government] would definitely consider stepping up border control measures, but [we would also have to look into] which option would be the best at a certain time," Chan said during a television program.

Err... how about now? To keep things under control reducing as much contact from the mainland is the easiest way to contain the number of cases in Hong Kong.

People are terrified of a repeat of SARS in 2003.

Speaking of which, residents in Fanling violently protested when they found out a public housing estate in the area that is nearly completed could potentially will be used to quarantine patients. Clad in black, the protesters smashed what looked like tiles and glass on the roads and set fire to the entrance to the housing estate. They also damaged traffic lights.

The lobby of a newly built housing estate in Fanling set on fire
Police descended on the area and detained some protesters and journalists. The fear and mistrust in the government is real and intense, built up in particular over the last eight months.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and her administration probably weren't anticipating this reaction at all, as she and her cohorts are living in a parallel universe. How are they going to overcome people's fear and mistrust? Oh wait it's too late -- she lost her chance at good will ages ago and these last few days.

And Beijing still has faith in her?

Saturday, 25 January 2020

Lam Defends Government (In)actions

Lam is back and now leading the effort to stop the coronavirus from spreading
Finally Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor is back in Hong Kong, and finally some action is being taken to try to stop the Wuhan coronavirus from spreading in the city.

Hours after landing from Davos, Switzerland, Lam held a 90-minute press conference where she announced primary and secondary schools will be closed until February 17 and it seems universities are following suit, all travelers who are not Hong Kong residents must fill out health forms, and everyone should wear masks. Currently Hong Kong has five confirmed cases, and worldwide there are over 1,400 cases, and 41 deaths.

Upcoming Standard Chartered Marathon has been scrapped
She insisted that her administration was not waiting for her to get back. "Even when I was in Davos I never stopped liaising with Secretary for Health Sophia Chan and Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung."

Then how come they didn't see it necessary for all travelers on the high speed rail to West Kowloon didn't have to fill out health declaration forms and why was the second infected patient in Hong Kong allowed to leave for Manila? Yesterday the Philippine government said it was flying back all Chinese nationals in a bid to lessen the number of coronavirus cases there.

In addition the Standard Chartered Marathon that was supposed to be held February 9 is cancelled, which makes people like me half relieved, but also half shrugging. I could have done the race, as I have been training for it. But I will continue training anyway.

Lam said the new package of measures was introduced because the situation had reached a "critical point", two days after the city's first confirmed case.

A lot of people are wearing masks in public spaces
But surely she must remember from 2003 that these cases can spread very fast? The government needed to be more aggressive in the first few days, not dither.

However, health experts had called on the government to immediately shut down the border with the mainland, but Lam refused, saying it was "inappropriate and impractical" to shut down all ports linked to the mainland.

What does she mean by "inappropriate"? This is about life and death for some people who have been infected by this virulent strain. Does she mean the flow of food coming from the mainland? She needs to explain for people to understand instead of just saying it's "inappropriate".

A labour union representing medical staff said public doctors had threatened to strike if the government refused to shut the border.

"Maybe we have become used to more radical moves in the past few months, but I hope medical staff will not resort to a confrontational approach to fight for their cause," Lam said.

Yuen Kwok-yung (right) says the coronavirus is contagious
These doctors would not threaten such drastic action if they felt they could handle the caseloads. They are genuinely terrified of what could happen if not enough is done to prevent more cases from coming into Hong Kong and spreading.

As for the shortage of masks, Lam said she had written to the State Council for cooperation. Why are we asking the mainland for masks. Shouldn't we be buying supplies from elsewhere? I have relatives who are terrified that the mainland would sell recycled masks. That shows how much confidence they have in Chinese-made products...

Microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung from the University of Hong Kong believes this coronavirus is highly contagious.

"Hong Kong or Macau or other world cities could easily become another Wuhan or another 2003 Hong Kong," Yuen said in an online message, referring to the SARS outbreak in 2003 that killed 299 people, including eight medical staff.

Most people on the streets are wearing masks as a precaution. Strangely those non-Chinese who cough, don't...

Friday, 24 January 2020

Challenging Year of the Rat Ahead

Medical staff in Wuhan in protective gear... that they are running out of
Again the Hong Kong government is being caught flat footed in dealing with the Wuhan coronavirus that is baffling health experts because many of the first few people who died did not have elevated temperatures.

While many cities in China have gone into lock down in a bid to slow the spread of the virulent virus, Shanghai Disneyland is closed, cinemas shut, and temple fairs have been cancelled. Even Macau has made some prudent decisions, including the possibility of shutting down casinos, and keeping schools shut an extra two weeks.

Carrie Lam seems more interested in wooing elites in Davos
This would have been an excellent opportunity for Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor to show some leadership, but instead she's been busy in Davos, Switzerland, serving dim sum to world political and business leaders to tell them Hong Kong is open for business.

Local media are questioning whether Lam should be hobnobbing with business and political elites when people back home are panicking because they can't get a hold of any masks, and if they do the price is several times what they are usually sold at.

There are no definitive decisions being made by the government. It is only when the public and media complain are the authorities pressured to do something... or wait. But in a medical crisis like this, time is of the essence.

Hongkongers desperate to buy masks, a repeat of 2003
Did the Hong Kong government not learn anything from when SARS hit Hong Kong in 2003?

Borders need to be shut down, not allowing cars to go on the Hong Kong-Macau-Zhu Hai bridge free of charge for a week, and making everyone traveling into the city write down their contact details, while setting aside more than just holiday campsites for quarantine.

How about shutting down Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park? Lam and her administration seem to have no idea what to do.

The timing of this coronavirus is particularly bad now with Chinese New Year and millions of people in China are traveling around the country.

Shanghai Disneyland is shut... what about Hong Kong's?
Meanwhile it is painful to hear the stories coming out of Wuhan. Medical staff are desperate for fresh supplies of gowns, masks, and eyewear to protect themselves. There's video footage going viral of a medical personnel breaking down in hysterics in the staff room as others try to relax on their break.

There are stories of people in Wuhan trying to get into hospitals because they know they are ill and yet they are not being admitted and forced to go back home because it's already crowded. This is not a good way of managing the crisis either.

Lam will definitely face a barrage of questions from the media when she gets back, and also how will President Xi Jinping quell people's anger and frustration at the spread of this coronavirus?

The latest news is that 40 medical personnel from the People's Liberation Army have been dispatched to Wuhan tonight and more to follow. Hopefully they are bringing in more supplies too.

Wuhan is building a makeshift hospital in six days
But perhaps even more crazier is that Wuhan is trying to build a makeshift hospital in six days to house 1,000 patients. However, this is exactly what was done 17 years ago outside of Beijing for the PLA to treat almost 15 percent of SARS patients in China for two months.

We have now started the Year of the Rat with a coronavirus that has at least 918 cases worldwide and 26 deaths. Not exactly a good start, but we can only hope things can get better?