Hong Kong's unraveling is a warning

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Hong Kong's unraveling is a warning

Pride comes before a fall. Hong Kong, the Asian financial center that seemed to have dodged the coronavirus bullet only to now face its worst outbreak ever, is learning that the hard way.

Despite its proximity to mainland China, Hong Kong never saw daily new infections go above 28 cases in the first half of 2020. As people in Singapore—its rival regional hub—were forced to stay home, Hong Kongers thronged bars and beaches as social distancing guidelines were eased through May and June.

The former British colony was lauded for early action and a mask-wearing discipline that seemed to have helped its 7.5 million population avoid the worst. But amid social normalization and self-congratulation in the last few months, loopholes and lax requirements in the quarantine of foreign arrivals were actually quietly seeding the pathogen again. The rapid resumption of social activity then spread it around the city.

Now, infections have grown to more than 800 in 18 days, and the government is scrambling to reinstate restrictions. The numbers may not seem like a lot to other places facing thousands of new cases, but a worrying metric stands out: officials can't trace how nearly half of new cases are being transmitted.

Pedestrians wearing face masks walk on a rail platform in Hong Kong this week.

Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images AsiaPac

This high share of "cases of unknown origins" means that infections have been circulating in the community for some time, creating multiple hidden chains of transmission. Hong Kong does not know where its new wave is coming from, so it has few options for halting the spread beyond a broad, and painful, lockdown.

It's another blow to a city already reeling from months of unruly anti-Beijing street protests followed by the pandemic's emergence. As joblessness surges to a 15-year high, Hong Kong is also under pressure from the deteriorating relationship between the U.S. and China after Beijing imposed a national security law in the city.

Worse, the city's hospitalization and testing capacity appears to be already reaching its limit. Having never faced a large outbreak, Hong Kong did not build up the isolation, testing and treatment facilities that China, South Korea and Singapore have in the past months. It can test only around 10,000 people daily at the moment; Australia's Victoria state, facing a similar resurgence but with a smaller population, is doing at least twice that.

Hong Kong's predicament is a warning to all governments around the world, especially the ones who seem the most successful right now. Stay prepared, for the coronavirus loves nothing more than a lowered guard.—Rachel Chang

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