Hong Kong: The virus is flaring again in parts of Asia, with Hong Kong and Tokyo reporting record spikes in new infections just days after Melbourne locked down again, reflecting the challenge of containing the pathogen even in places that seemed beyond the worst of the pandemic.
The resurgences in the Asian hubs come after weeks of normalized activity as people returned to work and restaurants filled up again, raising the specter of a reversion to social distancing. Both cities marked single-day highs on Thursday: Tokyo detected 224 cases while Hong Kong found 34 local infections, taking its tally for the week to 65 after a three-month stretch of being mostly virus-free.
The flareups are sobering reminders that the pandemic is far from over. Without an effective and widely-distributed vaccine, cities are likely to continue in a state of limbo in which easing of social distancing will lead to a spike of infection. The virus’s ability to spread silently for weeks is still not fully understood by scientists, some of whom suspect that it can linger in the air for hours.
“The virus will not leave us. It won’t completely disappear and it won’t for a long time be kept at zero cases,” said Hong Kong Food and Health Secretary Sophia Chan on Thursday. “With society’s need to resume limited levels of economic and social activities, it’s unavoidable to have new cases.”
In Hong Kong, the number of new local infections that can’t be traced suggest that hidden chains of transmission have been circulating in the city for some time as restaurants, bars and malls filled up and the population’s discipline on mask-wearing slipped.
The city will now cap restaurant capacity at 60% starting this weekend, with a maximum of eight people per table, while bars will be restricted to four per table, Chan said on Thursday.
In Tokyo, officials blamed the surge on increased testing at nightclubs where patrons pay to socialize with male or female escorts called “hosts” and “hostesses.” As Japan lacks legal powers to force businesses to close, some of these clubs stayed open through its voluntary state of emergency in April and May, becoming centers of infection.
Hong Kong has quelled two waves of infection in February and April and its total outbreak numbers only 1,365 cases. Alongside Taiwan, the city is seen as one of the most effective at virus containment in the region. Japan too is considered a success story, keeping its outbreak contained without a lockdown thanks to advantages like an established army of contact-tracers.
In recent weeks, residents in both cities returned to work and social activity as some complacency set in.
“Already when you go on the subway or buses, you see people without masks. But we need to keep up that guard,” said Nicholas Thomas, associate professor specializing in public health at the City University of Hong Kong. “The best way to stop these clusters from forming is for people themselves to adhere to social distancing measures even if the restrictions are loosened.” – Bloomberg