‘Get out, no matter what’: Quarantine camps, family separations, and a looming lockdown are the final straw for Hong Kong’s fleeing expats

March 5, 2022, 12:00 AM UTC

The Hong Kong International Airport was once one of the world’s busiest hubs. Now it features vacant ticketing counters, boarded-up coffee shops, and the faint hum of sanitation robots as the Chinese territory remains sealed off from the rest of the globe.

But on Thursday, there were pockets of frenzied activity in the airport’s departure hall as travelers who snagged coveted seats on flights to Vietnam, the United Arab Emirates, and Thailand hoisted their suitcases and duffels onto baggage belts.

“[For us], it is get out [of Hong Kong] no matter what,” says John, a mid-thirties professional in the airline industry who wished to remain anonymous owing to potential backlash from his employer. Waiting in line for a flight to Dubai, John said that after seven years of living in Hong Kong, he and his wife had decided to book a ticket back home to South Africa last week after seeing reports that the Hong Kong government separated a mother from her 11-month-old baby after the child tested positive for COVID.

“The idea of getting separated from our 10-month-old has been terrifying…We’ve been staying at home and isolating so that no one in our family would test positive,” says John, with his baby girl strapped to his stomach.

Naavid Khan, a 42-year-old banker, was preparing to board a flight to Dubai en route to Pakistan. He and his wife decided to leave Hong Kong shortly after the city closed schools, and they realized their elementary-school–age children would be stuck at home indefinitely. “There’s nothing that we’re achieving here by being locked in our house,” he says.

Woman pushes friend in luggage cart at Hong Kong airport.
Hong Kong’s COVID restrictions are driving expats from the city in record numbers.
Miguel Candela—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

On Friday, Hong Kong reported 52,523 new COVID infections, putting the city’s daily case count above that of the entire United States. Hong Kong’s Omicron outbreak is also growing more deadly owing in large part to the city’s low elderly vaccination rate. Hong Kong averaged 26 deaths per million people in the past seven days, nearly triple the U.S.’s peak rate of nine deaths per million in January.

But it’s not Hong Kong’s COVID outbreak that has residents headed for the exits in record numbers. Rather, departing residents say the city’s increasingly draconian—yet seemingly futile—tactics to contain COVID have made Hong Kong nearly unlivable. Some of them have no plans to come back since they have little hope that conditions in the city will improve anytime soon.

Hong Kong exodus

For two years, Hong Kong managed to live relatively free of COVID by requiring weeks-long hotel quarantines for incoming travelers and deploying intensive contact-tracing measures to quell sporadic outbreaks.

But after first emerging in Hong Kong late last year, the highly contagious Omicron variant overwhelmed the city’s defenses. Hong Kong instituted new restrictions; it closed schools, gyms, bars, and other venues, imposed an indoor and outdoor mask mandate, and banned gatherings with more than two households.

The measures did not blunt the spread. Hong Kong’s outbreak has grown exponentially since early January, with cases doubling every two to three days, according to authorities.

Amid the outbreak, some public health experts have urged the city to give up on trying to track down and isolate every single case. Instead, experts say, Hong Kong should focus on protecting the city’s most vulnerable residents and learn to “live with COVID” in a bid to safely reopen to the world. But Chinese President Xi Jinping has publicly pressured Hong Kong to maintain its “dynamic COVID zero” strategy to isolate and eradicate every case of COVID. Mainland China has repeatedly used intense lockdowns and mass testing measures to quell its own outbreaks, and Beijing’s growing influence in Hong Kong means the city will likely adhere to a similar strategy, says Nicholas Thomas, a professor of global health governance at the City University of Hong Kong.

On Feb. 22, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that every city resident would be subject to compulsory testing in March and said that authorities would send anyone who tested positive to a government quarantine facility. That same day, a Facebook user created a group called “Expatriating out of Hong Kong support group,” dedicated to people leaving Hong Kong because of the new COVID measures. In the group that now has nearly 4,000 members, people share tips about breaking their leases and donating furniture, getting PCR tests before flying out, and booking flights that are least likely to get canceled.

Justin Chung, a 42-year-old e-commerce entrepreneur, joined the group shortly after it launched. He and his family decided to leave the city after seeing pictures of the makeshift isolation facilities, which are shipping container–size rooms with three beds and one toilet.

The “final straw” in his decision to move was seeing the isolation facilities, he says. “We did not want to be taken into any of these [isolation] camps. Full stop,” Chung says. He flew to Australia with his wife and child on Thursday.

Isolation units for COVID patients under construction
Hong Kong is rapidly building isolation facilities to house those who test positive for COVID.
Louise Delmotte—Getty Images

This week, city authorities suggested that they may pair the testing program with a citywide lockdown, which would limit how often residents could leave their homes during the nine-day testing period.

Experts in Hong Kong say that the mass testing program at the height of Hong Kong’s outbreak may uncover hundreds of thousands of cases, overwhelming the city’s ability to isolate and quarantine every case, which would make it a futile attempt to halt transmission.

The prospect of the lockdown convinced Dom, a manufacturing consultant from Australia who’s lived in Hong Kong for two years, to book a ticket home. Dom, who declined to give his last name owing to sensitivities with his employer, said he plans to return once the lockdown is over but is eager to ride out Hong Kong’s COVID wave from outside the city. “Everywhere else is actually relatively safer than Hong Kong right now,” he said while waiting to unload his two large suitcases at bag check. He was headed for Bangkok and then on to Australia.

Immigration data indicate a record number of people may be making that similar determination.

In February, 94,035 people left Hong Kong, and 22,681 people arrived, creating a net loss of 71,354 people, according to Hong Kong immigration statistics compiled by independent researcher David Webb.

The figure marked the highest net exodus of Hong Kong residents in a single month since the beginning of the pandemic, and Webb suggests that it is likely the largest outflow of residents the city has experienced in decades. The figure is more than double the 38,568 residents who left Hong Kong in July 2021, the month the city implemented a sweeping National Security Law that city authorities have used to crack down on dissent.

Hong Kong has also made it hard to reenter the city.

Hong Kong has banned all flights from nine countries including the U.S., Canada, and Australia. From everywhere else, travelers must complete 14-day mandatory hotel quarantines at their own expense even as infectious disease experts question the tactic. Thomas and other public health experts say there’s little point in arrivals serving mandatory quarantines when the virus is spreading so rapidly in the city.

Many of the quarantine hotels are being turned into isolation facilities, making it increasingly difficult for arrivals to book their mandatory stays.

The harsh travel restrictions have ground activity at Hong Kong’s airport to a halt. In 2018, Hong Kong International Airport handled 74.5 million passengers making it the world’s eighth busiest airport. Last year, it saw 1.4 million passengers.

No exit strategy

Chung says that he hopes his family’s move away from Hong Kong is only temporary. But they will only return once the city transitions away from its strict COVID-zero policies, which he does not anticipate changing anytime soon.

“When you see the rest of the world, they’ve completely opened up, or they’ve at least got a road map as to opening up and getting back to normal,” he says. “Hong Kong does not have any of that…there’s just a lack of clarity and direction.”

Khan, the banker, says he also hopes to come back but that his family might not return to Hong Kong at all if quarantines are still in place later this summer. “If quarantines, lockdowns, and isolation facilities are all still up and running, then yeah, it won’t work out [to stay],” he says.

In January, the European Chamber of Commerce predicted that Hong Kong would not open up its borders until late 2023 or early 2024. “We anticipate an exodus of foreigners, probably the largest that Hong Kong has ever seen, and one of the largest in absolute terms from any city in the region,” the chamber said in its report, according to Bloomberg. That month, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce published a survey taken before the recent outbreak that said 53% of its members were already considering leaving the city owing to onerous travel restrictions.

Hong Kong’s latest outbreak and restrictions seem to have sped up the exodus.

Emily, a 27-year-old British citizen living in Hong Kong who declined to share her last name owing to her employment situation, says she and her husband recently decided to move back home to the U.K. after realizing Hong Kong is unlikely to change its policies anytime soon.

“After one year of having vaccines, we’ve still got all these restrictions in place. There’s just no way of knowing how long it’s going to be like this for,” she says. “We haven’t been home in two years…And I don’t really want to spend the last years of my twenties stuck in one place.”

When Chung moved to Hong Kong 10 years ago, he said it truly lived up to its moniker as “Asia’s world city.” He enjoyed the city’s diverse expat community and the ease of traveling around Asia. Now, he says, the city has become unrecognizable from what once made it special.

“It was an international city, it was a vibrant place…That’s why we moved here,” he says. “Now, Hong Kong can no longer call itself a world city at all.”

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