Wong Wing-yan has taken to closing the doorways of the empty bedrooms on the suburban Hong Kong nursing residence the place she works, so she doesn’t have to consider the residents who as soon as occupied them. A few of the rooms at the moment are getting used as haphazard storage closets, stacked with mothballed furnishings, wheelchairs, and containers of private protecting tools (PPE). Marks left by tape can nonetheless be seen on the partitions, the place photographs of family members have been as soon as displayed.
“There are various empty rooms now,” mentioned Wong, a bespectacled nurse in her thirties, as she walked TIME by the power in late April. “I’ve identified [the inhabitants] for therefore lengthy, and now once I see these empty rooms, I’m depressed.”
COVID-19 lastly got here to the Kei Tak (Tai Hang) Home For the Aged on Feb. 13, after sparing it for 2 years and 4 earlier waves of the illness. The following day, 17 residents examined optimistic. The day after that, it was 30. Quickly, 98% of the residents had been contaminated—and after two months, 27 of the nursing residence’s 200 residents had died.
“Our aged residence become a battlefield as hospitals have been overloaded and the healthcare system collapsed,” mentioned Wong, who has labored at Kei Tak for greater than 10 years.
Sufferers lie in a brief holding space outdoors Caritas Medical Heart in Hong Kong on Feb. 16, 2022.
Leung Man Hei—NurPhoto/Reuters
She was a foot soldier in Hong Kong’s battle in opposition to the fifth wave of COVID-19—a struggle town spectacularly misplaced. For a lot of February to April, Hong Kong turned from pandemic success story to the place with the very best COVID-19 loss of life charge on the planet. Out of a inhabitants of seven.5 million, some 9,000 lives have been misplaced in a 10-week period as Hong Kong seemed to be taken off guard by the extremely contagious Omicron variant.
The hospital system was shortly overburdened. Horrifying photographs started circulating on social media of frail, principally aged individuals, bundled in blankets, mendacity on gurneys within the driveways of hospitals too full to accommodate them. Morgues crammed up, and thousands of corpses needed to be stored in refrigerated containers. In some hospitals, physique baggage have been piled up between the beds of nonetheless residing sufferers. Coffins couldn’t be obtained shortly sufficient and crematoriums struggled to maintain up with demand, leaving many our bodies to decay earlier than they could possibly be buried or cremated.
Learn Extra: How Hong Kong Became China’s Biggest COVID Problem
The tragedy befell regardless of vaccines being extensively out there for a yr prior and Hong Kong imposing a few of the hardest an infection management measures on the planet—together with periodic entry bans for non-residents, necessary quarantine for vacationers, strict masks mandates, a compulsory track-and-trace app, and quarantine camps or hospitalization for anybody testing optimistic. However overreliance on such measures led to vaccine complacency. An alarmingly low vaccination charge among the many aged made that inhabitants particularly weak, as soon as sooner spreading variants appeared. In January, only about 25% of Hong Kong residents aged 80 and older had been jabbed, with the speed amongst care residence residents even decrease. Virtually all of those that perished within the fifth wave, about 72%, have been unvaccinated.
The heavy toll at Kei Tak mirrored what was taking place at different aged care amenities. By the top of the fifth wave, about 1.5% of all Hong Kong residents aged 80 or over had died, with the overwhelming majority of these fatalities in nursing houses. Now, as COVID-19 begins to spike within the metropolis as soon as extra, it’s not clear that Hong Kong has discovered the teachings from earlier this yr. On July 25, the federal government announced three new deaths from COVID-19, everywhere in the age of 70. Two of the useless hadn’t obtained any vaccine doses in any respect. The vaccination standing of the third has not but been reported.
Packing containers of provides pile up on beds usually reserved for residents requiring particular care, Kei Tak (Tai Hold) Dwelling for the Aged, on Could 6.
Anthony Kwan for TIME
Hong Kong’s vaccination marketing campaign failed its aged
Most consultants attribute the excessive toll of Hong Kong’s fifth wave to the low charge of aged vaccination.
The authorities have made two vaccines out there for free of charge to the general public: CornaVac, an inactivated virus vaccine developed by mainland Chinese language agency Sinovac, and an mRNA vaccine manufactured by BioNTech in Germany that makes use of the identical expertise because the Pfizer vaccine extensively utilized in the USA. Wong says she and different nurses at Kei Tak tried their greatest to get their residents jabbed, however in lots of instances this required authorization from the residents’ households, who have been usually hesitant, fearing that underlying circumstances like hypertension, or a historical past of strokes, made aged individuals unsuitable recipients of a dose. This was even though vaccines have been being safely administered to tens of millions of sufferers with these circumstances within the U.S. and Europe.
Learn Extra: Global Shortages Loom as China’s Lockdowns Continue
Unfounded rumors circulated about deaths linked to vaccination. Native newspapers sowed stoked fears by repeatedly publicizing instances of people that died inside 14 days if being vaccinated—even when vaccination performed no half within the fatalities. Authorities messaging added to the uncertainty. On Mar. 6, then well being secretary, Sophia Chan, suggested “to the general public that if they’re unsure about their very own state of affairs whether or not they have severe persistent sickness or uncontrolled persistent sickness, they will truly seek the advice of their household docs to grasp extra earlier than they make a reserving for vaccination.”
In such an environment, many individuals in aged care, and their households, merely concluded that vaccines have been dangerous. The implications at Kei Tak have been grimly predictable.
Dr. Poon Yui Pan, deputy head of Hong Kong’s Kei Tak (Tai Hold) Dwelling for the Aged, conducts a speedy antigen check on a resident.
Anthony Kwan for TIME
Poon Yui-pan, a 42-year-old physician and the deputy head of the power, mentioned he tried to deal with contaminated residents with acetaminophen, ice packs, and vitamin C he purchased from the native grocery store. Calling emergency providers didn’t carry instant help. On the top of the fifth wave, wait instances for an ambulance stretched more than 30 hours, in line with native media. Hospitals have been so crowded that many in Hong Kong recovered whereas waiting for a bed.
Like many different nursing houses, Kei Tak didn’t have sufficient house to maintain contaminated residents remoted, and the virus unfold uncontrollably. The power struggled with workers shortages as some employees, fearful about catching the virus, stopped coming in or give up. Wong examined optimistic for COVID-19 herself, however continued along with her duties. The residents she taken care of had all contracted the virus by then. “I felt an ideal sense of duty to care for them,” she says.
Learn Extra: The Chinese Public Is Divided Over Its Zero-COVID Approach
Wong remembers a very cherished, 92-year-old resident that she known as kai ma—Cantonese for godmother—and anxiously touches her necklace whereas she talks about how the girl’s household had declined to have her vaccinated. She reminisces about afternoons spent with kai ma, watching her favourite TV present, a neighborhood drama from the Nineties. The resident, who was a farmer when she was youthful, was at all times smiling and infrequently shared tales about her household. At mealtimes, she would at all times ask if Wong had eaten earlier than starting to eat herself.
“She was like household to me,” the nurse says.
Pandemic provides are saved in an empty bed room on the Kei Tak (Tai Hold) Dwelling for the Aged, Hong Kong
Anthony Kwan for TIME
A face defend hangs on a cupboard at Kei Tak (Tai Hold) Dwelling for the Aged, Hong Kong
Anthony Kwan for TIME
The aged woman died through the fifth wave, one in every of many Hong Kong’s COVID-19 victims who’ve handed away in relative anonymity. There was little public expression of mourning for the numerous lives misplaced. No memorials have been erected and the native press is oddly devoid of tales concerning the lives of those that died. The members of the family of a number of sufferers from Kei Tak nursing residence who died of COVID-19 declined to be interviewed by TIME and even have the names of their members of the family shared.
Only a few individuals really feel comfy speaking about loss of life. However in Hong Kong, the reticence is especially acute. “In Chinese language tradition, individuals keep away from speaking about loss of life as a result of they consider it could carry dangerous luck,” says Chan Kai-woon, a 31-year-old funeral director.
Marks left by tape that after held up household photographs, seen in a dormitory house that belonged to a resident who died of COVID-19, Kei Tak (Tai Hold) Dwelling for the Aged, Hong Kong.
Anthony Kwan for TIME
Accountability for Hong Kong’s pandemic failures
Months later, there nonetheless has been no actual reckoning over the massive variety of preventable deaths.
In a uncommon admission, town’s then chief, Carrie Lam, mentioned in a mid-June interview with Bloomberg TV that her administration may have completed extra to forestall aged deaths with a stronger vaccination drive. However when requested if she wished to apologize to the Hong Kong individuals for something that occurred throughout her tenure, she mentioned no. In her final look within the legislature in late June, outgoing well being chief Chan ignored questions on whether or not she was personally chargeable for the fifth wave.
Some issues have since improved. COVID-19 vaccines at the moment are necessary for brand new nursing residence residents. The federal government has additionally despatched outreach teams to aged houses and started providing a home vaccination service for these 70 or older. The vaccination charge is larger, however nonetheless, on July 20, only 59% of the inhabitants aged 70 to 79, and solely 38% of these 80 and older, had obtained three doses of a vaccine. Against this, 80% of people 75 and older within the U.Okay. had obtained a fourth dose by Could 2022, two months after they grew to become eligible.
Learn Extra: Taiwan Is Abandoning Its Zero-COVID Strategy
For now, town remains to be clinging to social distancing, monitor and hint, masks mandates and different COVID-19 countermeasures in a bid to guard the unvaccinated. That could possibly be problematic. Hong Kong reported 4,276 new cases on July 26, and officers are once more warning that the hospital system is in peril of turning into stretched. Spikes might happen if the federal government yields to intense stress from the enterprise neighborhood to open Hong Kong’s borders and loosen COVID-19 controls.
About 100 care houses had reported new instances by early July, although Grace Li Fai, chairwoman of the Aged Companies Affiliation of Hong Kong, advised native media that transmission chains are being lower off sooner, as a result of elevated testing for employees and residents. As an alternative, it seems that COVID-19 is spreading amongst aged who don’t stay in care amenities. Solely about 10% of these at present hospitalized for COVID-19—the nice majority of whom are over the age of 65—are residents of care houses, according to the South China Morning Put up.
Yip Fung-cheung, 82, a resident of Hong Kong’s Kei Tak (Tai Hold) Dwelling for the Aged, eats dinner in her dormitory house.
Anthony Kwan for TIME
Wong says that life is transferring on at Kei Tak. Residents who have been too depressed to eat after the fifth wave have regained their appetites, and a few of the empty rooms are being occupied once more. “We’re accepting new residents, so there are quite a lot of new faces,” she says.
She provides that Kei Tak is best ready for a brand new surge. The vaccination charge on the residence has reached nearly 100%, officers have inspected its air flow system, and shares of PPE have been amassed. There have been no new confirmed instances on the residence. “I’ve been mentally prepared that there could be a sixth wave,” Wong says.
However the scars stay. She describes COVID-19 as “a disaster” for town’s aged care amenities. “Hong Kong is meant to be a civilized society,” says Wong. “How may one thing like this occur right here?”
Private results left by a deceased resident, seen on a mattress at Hong Kong’s Kei Tak (Tai Hold) Dwelling for the Aged.
Anthony Kwan for TIME
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