Hong Kong is imposing its first COVID-19 lockdown, one year into the pandemic

January 22, 2021, 10:35 AM UTC

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Hong Kong is locking down 10,000 people in a central urban area to control the spread of the coronavirus, the government announced early Saturday morning.

The lockdown in Jordan, one of the most densely populated parts of Hong Kong, will be the first time Hong Kong residents experience a full-blown government-enforced quarantine.

The lockdown will end when every resident in the affected zone tests negative for COVID-19, the government said, adding that it hopes to test everyone in the area within 48 hours so that residents can go to work on Monday morning.

Police cordoned off the affected area before dawn, and the government announced the lockdown in a statement published at 4:46 a.m., more than 12 hours after local media first reported the lockdown. At a daily COVID-19 press briefing on Friday afternoon, health officials declined to confirm whether the lockdown was happening, and a government representative declined to confirm the lockdown to Fortune on Friday evening.

All shops in the area are closed, and government workers will distribute food and cleaning supplies to residents.

No one will be allowed to enter the area except for people who live there, essential workers like employees of elder care homes, and 1,700 government officers, including 500 policemen, who are being deployed to the area to cordon it off and assist health workers with door-to-door inspections, according to local media.

“The Government hopes this temporary inconvenience will completely cut the local transmission chains and ease residents’ worries and fear, so that they will regain confidence in resuming social and business activities in the area, and return to a normal life,” the government said in a Saturday morning press release.

People who test negative can leave their buildings and move about the neighborhood—though they are encouraged to stay home—and everyone, even those with negative tests, must stay in the locked-down area until the government lifts the order. Anyone who has visited the affected area for more than two hours in that last 14 days must undergo COVID-19 testing.

The strict measures come amid Hong Kong’s fourth wave of coronavirus infections, which has lasted longer than the three previous outbreaks. This past week, the city recorded an average of 59 daily new cases, compared to a weekly average of five new daily cases at the start of November, before the fourth wave began.

The part of Hong Kong subject to the lockdowns encompasses working class neighborhoods, and many of the dwellings are old tenement buildings where people live in cramped conditions with poor ventilation and sewage systems suspected to have played a role in transmission of the disease within apartment buildings.

One Hong Kong health official, Raymond Ho Lei-ming, sparked outcry this week after suggesting that ethnic minority South Asian people, many of whom live in the lockdown area and some of whom have recently contracted COVID-19, are to blame for the outbreak because of their living habits.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam addressed the controversial remarks on Tuesday, saying, “There is absolutely no suggestion of the spread of the disease relating to race or ethnicity.”

As of Friday, Hong Kong had recorded 168 coronavirus-related deaths and just under 10,000 cases. Hong Kong has implemented some restrictions, like restaurant, bar, and beauty parlor closures, and limits on public gatherings, but it has never enforced a lockdown of the kind that the U.S. and countries in Europe first underwent in March.

Hong Kong kept COVID-19 cases low at the beginning of the pandemic, despite sharing a porous border with mainland China, where the first outbreak occurred. It responded to the initial outbreak in the mainland by swiftly setting up temperature checks and quarantining people with symptoms. Residents were also quick to don face masks, with a majority of people wearing masks in public by late January.

Hong Kong also closed schools relatively early on in the pandemic, encouraged private office workers to work remotely, and at times mandated that government employees work from home.

Hong Kong’s rigorous contact tracing protocols and central quarantine infrastructure helped it avoid a full lockdown. The systems meant that health officials could identify and test everyone who had come into contact with a confirmed case and then send them to a government-run quarantine facility for two weeks.

One distinct feature of the fourth wave is that many of the recorded cases have unknown origin, meaning contact tracers are unable to find the source of infections.

The original version of this story was based on local media reports; it has been updated to reflect the government’s confirmation of the lockdown.