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Hong Kong Health Care Workers Threaten To Strike Over Coronavirus Concerns


Nurses in Hong Kong are threatening to go on strike if the city doesn't shut its border with mainland China. Some nurses have already engaged in unauthorized sick-outs to protest what they say is a lack of action by Hong Kong officials to address the new coronavirus outbreak. As NPR's Jason Beaubien reports in Hong Kong, hospitals in the city are scrambling to set up isolation wards and are already overwhelmed.

JASON BEAUBIEN, BYLINE: The Tuen Mun public hospital in the north west of Hong Kong currently isn't treating any confirmed cases of the new coronavirus. Several cases have been diagnosed here, but they've all since been transferred to the Hospital Authority's Infectious Disease Centre at Prince (ph) Margaret Hospital. Despite this, Albert Wong, a physician at Tuen Mun, says the outbreak is forcing people to work overtime and causing staff incredible levels of stress.

ALBERT WONG: There are dozens of suspected cases here right now. We don't know which of them will be the next confirmed case, and that is part of the issue. And secondly, there are new cases almost every day.

BEAUBIEN: Sitting in a small garden smoking area in front of the emergency room, Dr. Wong says the hospital is anticipating that in the coming weeks, a wave of patients with Wuhan coronavirus will be coming through their doors. The staff is being divided up into what are being called dirty and clean teams. Starting next week, the dirty team will handle all suspect and confirmed coronavirus cases in three isolation wards. The doctors, nurses and specialists on this team will only deal with coronavirus patients, and they won't interact with the rest of the medical staff over on the clean side of the hospital.

WONG: These people who are involved in the dirty team, they will be sort of quarantined even after work because we want to protect the rest of the society.

BEAUBIEN: They'll sleep in secure, dedicated housing. They won't be allowed to see friends or family members.

WONG: In general, we are talking about around four to six weeks of time where they are completely isolated from the rest of the world. So you can imagine how stressful that would be and what kind of life that would be.

BEAUBIEN: Part of what is particularly infuriating to Wong and many other health care workers is that they feel they are being asked to risk their lives fighting an outbreak that they believe was preventable. Wong and others argue that Hong Kong could have stopped the arrival of this disease by shutting its border with China until the outbreak on the mainland is under control.

WONG: If you look at those confirmed cases so far that we are having, all of them are imported cases.

BEAUBIEN: All of them are from Hubei province, the epicenter of the outbreak in China. And most of them arrived in Hong Kong on the high-speed train. On Thursday, Hong Kong finally did shut down all rail links to China, including its prestigious high-speed trains. Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, also halted all ferry service to China and barred people from Hubei from entering the city. But she stopped short of fully closing the border to the mainland.


CARRIE LAM: To stop all passenger traffic on such a massive and comprehensive scale is not warranted.

BEAUBIEN: Lam said the measures she's imposing to limit the flow of people from China into Hong Kong are drastic, draconian and unprecedented. Lam says that sealing off the border is impractical and would primarily hurt Hong Kong residents who'd end up trapped in China.


LAM: There are a large number of Hong Kong residents who are now travelling in the mainland and overseas, and they need to come back. So I don't think it is very meaningful to talk about a complete closure of the border control points.

BEAUBIEN: But the issue of closing the border has been the central demand of doctors and nurses.

WONG: We have been advocating for this since early January, but they haven't done anything.

BEAUBIEN: Wong and others say shutting the border is the only way to keep the virus at bay. And hundreds of nurses are threatening to walk off the job on Monday if the border to mainland China remains open.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Hong Kong.

(SOUNDBITE OF JINSANG'S "NIGHT HIKE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.