Hong Kong’s First Covid-19 Lockdown Exposes Deep-Rooted Inequality

HONG KONG — When Shirley Leung, 60, woke up enclosed in Hong Kong’s first coronavirus lockdown, she surveyed the tiny room she shares with her adult son, which fits a single bed and cardboard boxes and plastic tubs for storing clothes.

She tried to ignore the smell of the ceiling and walls, which were blanketed with mold. She rationed out the fresh vegetables she had at home, dissatisfied with the canned foods and instant noodles the government had provided when it imposed the restrictions on Saturday. She considered the cramped, interconnected nature of her apartment building.

“If one room is infected, then how is it possible for cases not to spread among subdivided flats?” Ms. Leung said in a telephone interview. “How can it be safe?”

Hong Kong has long been one of the most unequal places on Earth, a city where sleek luxury malls sit shoulder-to-shoulder with overcrowded tenements where the bathroom sometimes doubles as the kitchen. In normal times, that inequality is often concealed by the city’s glittery surface. But during the coronavirus pandemic, its cost has become unmistakable.

More than 160 confirmed cases were found in the neighborhood of Jordan from Jan. 1 to the end of last week, out of about 1,100 citywide. The government responded by locking down 10,000 residents in a 16-block area. More than 3,000 workers, many in hazmat suits, descended on the area to conduct mass testing.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said on Tuesday that the lockdown had been a success and added that more could be forthcoming; officials announced one in nearby Yau Ma Tei soon after.

Officials suggested that the dilapidated living conditions of many residents in Jordan had fueled the virus’s spread. A densely packed neighborhood known for a lively night market, aging high-rise apartments and plentiful eateries, Jordan is home to some of the city’s highest concentrations of tenements, the subdivided flats that are created when apartments are parceled out into two or more smaller ones.

More than 200,000 of the city’s poorest residents live in such units, where the average living space per person is 48 square feet — less than one-third the size of a New York City parking space. Some spaces are so tiny and restrictive that they are called cages or coffin homes.

“Many of the buildings in the restricted area are older and in disrepair,” Sophia Chan, the secretary for food and health, said on Saturday. “The risk of community infection is very high.”

Other business owners agreed but also demanded compensation from the government.

Low Hung-kau, the owner of a corner stall, Shanghai Delicious Foods, said he was forced to discard ingredients he had prepared in advance for steamed buns — an extra blow on top of the drop in business since the neighborhood outbreak began.

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