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Hong Kong's financial edge takes a Covid-19 beating

Banks close branches after a spike in cases creates a 'really critical' situation

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Hong Kong's financial edge takes a Covid-19 beating

A worker wearing a hazmat suit disinfects a shop to protect the public from the coronavirus in Hong Kong on July 20. (Photo: AFP)

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The coronavirus situation in Hong Kong has become "really critical" as major international banks close branches or curtail their operations in Asia’s financial hub.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, on July 19 said that Covid-19 was spreading fast in the territory of 7.5 million people after it reported a record daily high of more than 100 cases and imposed new social distancing measures.

Lam described the situation as "really critical" and added there was no sign it was improving.

After a lull, pandemic cases have spiked in the last two weeks, forcing Hong Kong Diocese to suspend public Masses on July 15.

HSBC, Standard Chartered and other banks closed branches or cut short their working hours on July 20, Reuters reported.

The Bank of China (Hong Kong) said in a July 20 statement that it was suspending services at nine branches due to the increase in virus infections.

HSBC said it would temporarily close two business centers and three mobile branches functioning out of vehicles.

Standard Chartered and Bank of East Asia have decided to shorten working hours in the former British colony.

Over the weekend, Hong Kong reported more than 100 Covid-19 cases in a 24-hour period — the most since its first case in late January.

The total number of coronavirus cases in the city state has reached 2,000 with 12 deaths, albeit low compared with European nations and the US.

At a media briefing on July 19, Lam announced new measures such as compulsory mask wearing indoors and an order to work from home for non-essential employees

Bars, gyms and nightclubs have been closed in the past week.

As hospitals are running beyond their capacity, there is a plan to build a further 2,000 isolation rooms, Lam added.

She urged landlords to lower rents in the densely populated Asian city.

Lam hinted at further social distancing measures if the daily infection rate did not come down.

Testing will be increased among high-risk groups like taxi drivers and restaurant workers and at elderly care homes where new infections emerged recently.

From next week, people visiting Hong Kong from seven high-risk countries, including India and Pakistan, will be asked to undergo a 14-day quarantine at government-approved hotels.

Between July 6 and July 19, more than 40 percent, or more than 220 of the 492 confirmed cases in Hong Kong, were attributed to unknown sources.

The chief executive promised to carry out 10,000 tests daily. "It's hard to tell what kind of measures we will need to roll out ... many places have ordered people to stay home," she said.

Authorities recently banned several pro-democracy meetings, including the June 4 vigil to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and an annual pro-democracy conference on July 1, citing social distancing norms due to Covid-19.

However, tens of thousands of people assembled to observe the annual gatherings, defying the police ban.

A month ago, Hong Kong was earning kudos for its success in keeping Covid-19 cases down, but now residents are skeptical about the government’s ability to control the pandemic.

Teresa Fung told UCA news that the government has no policy to prevent the disease. "We only do something as a stop-gap arrangement," she said.

She said Hong Kong's health workers, who were previously treated with hostility by the government, have had the hardest time and went on strike at the start of the pandemic to fight for the total closure of the territory.

A woman who identified herself as Miss Tang said that even though the government has proposed many policies, they are not being enforced. Many people are failing to wear masks when they are outside.

Jacob Chung pointed out that the government has not closed the borders and does not require all immigrants to wear masks.

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