Wong Wing-yan has taken to closing the doorways of the empty bedrooms on the suburban Hong Kong nursing house the place she works, so she doesn’t have to consider the residents who as soon as occupied them. A number of the rooms at the moment are getting used as haphazard storage closets, stacked with mothballed furnishings, wheelchairs, and bins of non-public protecting gear (PPE). Marks left by tape can nonetheless be seen on the partitions, the place pictures of family members have been as soon as displayed.
“There are a lot of empty rooms now,” mentioned Wong, a bespectacled nurse in her thirties, as she walked TIME by means of the ability in late April. “I’ve recognized [the inhabitants] for thus lengthy, and now after I see these empty rooms, I’m depressed.”
COVID-19 lastly got here to the Kei Tak (Tai Dangle) Dwelling For the Aged on Feb. 13, after sparing it for 2 years and 4 earlier waves of the illness. The subsequent 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 house’s 200 residents had died.
“Our aged house 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 Middle in Hong Kong on Feb. 16, 2022.
Leung Man Hei—NurPhoto/Reuters
She was a foot soldier in Hong Kong’s battle towards the fifth wave of COVID-19—a combat the town spectacularly misplaced. For a lot of February to April, Hong Kong turned from pandemic success story to the place with the best COVID-19 demise price on the planet. Out of a inhabitants of seven.5 million, some 9,000 lives have been misplaced in a 10-week interval as Hong Kong gave the impression to be taken off guard by the extremely contagious Omicron variant.
The hospital system was shortly overburdened. Horrifying pictures 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 stuffed up, and hundreds of corpses needed to be saved in refrigerated containers. In some hospitals, physique luggage have been piled up between the beds of nonetheless dwelling 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 Grew to become China’s Greatest COVID Downside
The tragedy occurred regardless of vaccines being extensively out there for a 12 months prior and Hong Kong imposing a number of the hardest an infection management measures on the planet—together with periodic entry bans for non-residents, obligatory 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 price among the many aged made that inhabitants particularly weak, as soon as sooner spreading variants appeared. In January, solely about 25% of Hong Kong residents aged 80 and older had been jabbed, with the speed amongst care house 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 occurring at different aged care amenities. By the tip 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 12 months. On July 25, the federal government introduced three new deaths from COVID-19, all around the age of 70. Two of the useless hadn’t acquired 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 Dangle) 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 price of aged vaccination.
The authorities have made two vaccines out there for gratis 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 know-how because the Pfizer vaccine extensively utilized in america. Wong says she and different nurses at Kei Tak tried their greatest to get their residents jabbed, however in lots of circumstances 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 supposing vaccines have been being safely administered to hundreds of thousands of sufferers with these circumstances within the U.S. and Europe.
Learn Extra: International Shortages Loom as China’s Lockdowns Proceed
Unfounded rumors circulated about deaths linked to vaccination. Native newspapers sowed stoked fears by repeatedly publicizing cases 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, urged “to the general public that if they’re unsure about their very own scenario whether or not they have critical power sickness or uncontrolled power sickness, they’ll truly seek the advice of their household medical doctors 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 results at Kei Tak have been grimly predictable.
Dr. Poon Yui Pan, deputy head of Hong Kong’s Kei Tak (Tai Dangle) Dwelling for the Aged, conducts a fast antigen take a look at on a resident.
Anthony Kwan for TIME
Poon Yui-pan, a 42-year-old physician and the deputy head of the ability, 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 quick help. On the peak of the fifth wave, wait occasions for an ambulance stretched greater than 30 hours, based on native media. Hospitals have been so crowded that many in Hong Kong recovered whereas ready for a mattress.
Like many different nursing houses, Kei Tak didn’t have sufficient area to maintain contaminated residents remoted, and the virus unfold uncontrollably. The power struggled with employees shortages as some employees, nervous about catching the virus, stopped coming in or give up. Wong examined optimistic for COVID-19 herself, however continued together with her duties. The residents she sorted had all contracted the virus by then. “I felt a terrific sense of duty to deal with them,” she says.
Learn Extra: The Chinese language Public Is Divided Over Its Zero-COVID Method
Wong recollects a very cherished, 92-year-old resident that she referred to as kai ma—Cantonese for godmother—and anxiously touches her necklace whereas she talks about how the lady’s household had declined to have her vaccinated. She reminisces about afternoons spent with kai ma, watching her favourite TV present, an area drama from the Nineties. The resident, who was a farmer when she was youthful, was all the time smiling and infrequently shared tales about her household. At mealtimes, she would all the time 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 Dangle) Dwelling for the Aged, Hong Kong
Anthony Kwan for TIME
A face protect hangs on a cupboard at Kei Tak (Tai Dangle) Dwelling for the Aged, Hong Kong
Anthony Kwan for TIME
The aged woman died throughout the fifth wave, one in all many Hong Kong’s COVID-19 victims who’ve handed away in relative anonymity. There was little public expression of mourning for the various lives misplaced. No memorials have been erected and the native press is oddly devoid of tales in regards to the lives of those that died. The relations of a number of sufferers from Kei Tak nursing house who died of COVID-19 declined to be interviewed by TIME and even have the names of their relations shared.
Only a few individuals really feel snug speaking about demise. However in Hong Kong, the reticence is especially acute. “In Chinese language tradition, individuals keep away from speaking about demise 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 when held up household pictures, seen in a dormitory area that belonged to a resident who died of COVID-19, Kei Tak (Tai Dangle) 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, the town’s then chief, Carrie Lam, mentioned in a mid-June interview with Bloomberg TV that her administration might have completed extra to stop aged deaths with a stronger vaccination drive. However when requested if she needed 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 answerable for the fifth wave.
Some issues have since improved. COVID-19 vaccines at the moment are obligatory for brand new nursing house residents. The federal government has additionally despatched outreach groups to aged houses and started providing a house vaccination service for these 70 or older. The vaccination price is greater, however nonetheless, on July 20, solely 59% of the inhabitants aged 70 to 79, and solely 38% of these 80 and older, had acquired three doses of a vaccine. In contrast, 80% of individuals 75 and older within the U.Ok. had acquired a fourth dose by Could 2022, two months after they grew to become eligible.
Learn Extra: Taiwan Is Abandoning Its Zero-COVID Technique
For now, the 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 circumstances on July 26, and officers are once more warning that the hospital system is at risk of changing 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 circumstances by early July, although Grace Li Fai, chairwoman of the Aged Companies Affiliation of Hong Kong, advised native media that transmission chains are being minimize off sooner, attributable to elevated testing for workers and residents. As a substitute, it seems that COVID-19 is spreading amongst aged who don’t stay in care amenities. Solely about 10% of these presently hospitalized for COVID-19—the nice majority of whom are over the age of 65—are residents of care houses, based on the South China Morning Publish.
Yip Fung-cheung, 82, a resident of Hong Kong’s Kei Tak (Tai Dangle) Dwelling for the Aged, eats dinner in her dormitory area.
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 number of the empty rooms are being occupied once more. “We’re accepting new residents, so there are loads of new faces,” she says.
She provides that Kei Tak is best ready for a brand new surge. The vaccination price on the house has reached virtually 100%, officers have inspected its air flow system, and shares of PPE have been amassed. There have been no new confirmed circumstances on the house. “I’ve been mentally prepared that there is likely to be a sixth wave,” Wong says.
However the scars stay. She describes COVID-19 as “a disaster” for the town’s aged care amenities. “Hong Kong is meant to be a civilized society,” says Wong. “How might 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 Dangle) Dwelling for the Aged.
Anthony Kwan for TIME
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