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Hong Kong Omicron deaths expose limits of fraying zero-Covid policy World’s worst spike in coronavir

World’s worst spike in coronavirus fatalities shows impact of lower vaccination rates than regional peers

As countries in Asia have one by one abandoned the zero-Covid strategy that aims to completely eliminate the disease, Hong Kong has doggedly adhered to the policy.

Despite being one of the last torchbearers for zero-Covid, the Chinese territory is in the grip of the most deadly Omicron surge in Asia Pacific. In recent days Hong Kong has recorded the highest daily death toll in the world.

As morgues reach capacity, large freezer containers have been sent to public hospitals to store bodies. “We don’t have the knowledge and equipment to fight,” said Stephanie Law, an executive at Hong Kong’s Elderly Services Association, pointing out that 70 per cent of elderly homes were dealing with outbreaks.

A crucial factor driving the surge is that the vast majority of Hong Kong’s vulnerable population remains unvaccinated, despite the wide availability of jabs.

Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, said the drive to protect older people by raising vaccination rates was “too little, too late”. “We’re catching up with the wave, when we could have been ahead of it,” he added.

Every country in the region has faced a rude awakening after two years of minimal Covid transmission but, unlike Hong Kong, most have been spared a wave of severe illness after using the time bought by zero-Covid to vaccinate large swaths of their vulnerable population.

As of Sunday, Hong Kong had registered 3,993 Covid deaths — three-quarters of which occurred in the previous 12 days. The territory’s seven-day rolling average of new Covid deaths has reached 284, or 38 fatalities per million residents, the highest such rate recorded anywhere in the world during the pandemic.

The city’s daily death rate has surpassed several European countries and now far outstrips that of nearby nations which abandoned their zero-Covid ambitions: it is 10 times greater than South Korea, 23-fold higher than Singapore and 37-fold higher than New Zealand.