HONG KONG – When Shirley Leung, 60, woke up in Hong Kong’s first coronavirus lockdown, she overlooked the tiny room she shares with her adult son, which can accommodate a single bed, cardboard boxes and plastic tubs for storing clothes.
She tried to ignore the smell of the ceiling and walls covered with mold. She rationed the fresh vegetables she had at home, dissatisfied with the canned goods and instant noodles the government had provided when it imposed restrictions on Saturday. She looked at the cramped, interconnected nature of her home.
“If a room is infected, how is it possible that cases do not spread to compartmentalized apartments?” Ms. Leung said in a telephone interview. “How can it be safe?”
Hong Kong has long been one of the most unequal places in the world, a city where sleek luxury shopping malls rub shoulders with overcrowded tenement houses, where the bathroom sometimes doubles as a kitchen. In normal times, this inequality is often masked by the glittering surface of the city. But during the coronavirus pandemic, its cost has become unmistakable.
From January 1 to the end of last week, more than 160 confirmed cases were found in the Jordanian neighborhood, out of about 1,100 across the city. The government responded by locking down 10,000 residents in an area of 16 blocks. More than 3,000 workers, many in protective suits, came to the area to conduct mass tests.
Hong Kong executive director Carrie Lam said Tuesday the lockdown had been a success, adding that more may follow. Officials announced one soon after in nearby Yau Ma Tei.
Officials suggested that the dilapidated living conditions of many of Jordan’s residents fueled the spread of the virus. Jordan is a crowded neighborhood known for its bustling night market, aging high-rise apartments, and numerous restaurants. This is where some of the city’s highest concentrations of rental apartments are located, the subdivided apartments that are created when apartments are divided into two or more smaller ones.
More than 200,000 of the city’s poorest residents live in units where the average living space per person is 48 square feet – less than a third the size of a parking lot in New York City. Some rooms are so small and restrictive that they are called cages or coffins.
The same conditions that may have led to the outbreak also made the lockdown particularly painful for many residents who worried about missing even a work day or feared being trapped in poorly ventilated breeding grounds of transmission. Officials admitted that they did not know exactly how many people were living in the compartmentalized apartments, which made efforts to test everyone difficult. Discrimination against low-income South Asian residents, many of whom are concentrated in the region, has also created problems.
Some have accused the government of tightening conditions for an outbreak and then imposing persistent measures on a group that can least afford to endure them. Wealthy Hong Kongers have caused outbursts of their own or disregarded socially distant rules with no similar consequences.
“If they did something wrong, it is to be poor, to live in a compartmentalized apartment, or to have a different skin color,” said Andy Yu, an elected officer in the restricted area.
The divided apartments have been a cause for concern since the pandemic began.
Ms. Leung, the retiree, and her son have only one bed to sleep in at night, and their son sleeps during the day after returning from night shifts as a construction worker. A roof beam was cracked, but the landlord had postponed repairs, she said. Shape was also a persistent problem as dirty water dripped from an adjacent unit.
Installation in subdivided apartments is often reconfigured to allow for more bathrooms or kitchens. However, the installation is often incorrect. During the 2002/03 SARS outbreak, more than 300 people were infected in a housing estate and 42 died after the virus spread through broken pipelines.
The government promised reforms after SARS but has recognized that the situation remains dangerous.
“Many of the buildings in the exclusion zone are older and in poor condition,” said Sophia Chan, the secretary for nutrition and health, on Saturday. “The risk of infection in the community is very high.”
The lockdown ultimately lasted only two days until midnight on Sunday the government said it had successfully tested most of the region’s residents. Thirteen people tested positive.
Jan. 26, 2021, 8:10 p.m. ET
However, experts said the government failed to address the underlying issues.
Wong Hung, deputy director of the Institute of Health Equity at Hong Kong University of China, said the government had not adequately regulated the compartmentalized housing.
“They fear that if they do something, there will be no place where low-income families can find shelter,” said Professor Wong. The real estate market in Hong Kong is consistently rated as the least affordable in the world.
Income inequality in Hong Kong is also closely linked to ethnicity, and the pandemic has exacerbated longstanding discrimination against South Asian residents, who make up around 1 percent of the city’s population. Almost a third of South Asian families with children in Hong Kong are below the poverty line, which, according to government data, is almost twice the proportion of all families in the city.
Many South Asians live in and around Jordan, including in divided dwellings, and as the virus spread, some locals made widespread allegations of unsanitary behavior.
Raymond Ho, a senior health official, was outraged last week when he suggested that Hong Kong’s ethnic minorities boost transmission because “they like to eat, smoke, drink alcohol and chat together”. Ms. Lam, the city’s leader, later said the government had not suggested that the spread of the disease was race related.
Sushil Newa, the owner of a brightly painted Nepalese restaurant in the exclusion zone, showed screenshots on his phone from online commentators comparing his community to animals and suggesting that they be alcoholics.
“We just work hard and pay taxes here. How come we are isolated from Hong Kong?” said Mr. Neva, referring to the discrimination when a clerk shoveled containers of biryani to take away.
Professor Wong said the government also failed to communicate effectively with residents of South Asia, which has led to confusion about the lockdown. The government later said it had sent translators. Other residents said the government provided Muslims with food that was not culturally appropriate, such as pork.
Even so, Mr Neva said he supported the lockdown. Although he lost money, controlling the outbreak is more important, he said.
Other entrepreneurs 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 ditch ingredients he had prepped for steamed buns – an added blow to the decline in business since the neighborhood outbreak began .
“I’ve lost 60 percent of my business,” he said. “Hardly anyone comes over.”
He spent the day after the lockdown gathering neighboring business owners to ask the government to pay at least some of their losses over the weekend. Government officials have dodged questions about compensation, only hoping employers would not deduct the salaries of workers who missed their jobs.
Activists criticized the government for its relief efforts throughout the pandemic, noting that it did not offer unemployment benefits. In addition, much of the state aid was directed towards employers rather than employees. Some companies have applied for subsidies to keep employees on payroll and then declined that promise.
Despite the risks, some had no choice but to break the lock.
Ho Lai-ha, a 71-year-old street cleaner, said she swept streets and cleared sewers over the weekend just days after they were identified as potential sources of contamination.
“I’m a little scared, but there is no other way,” she said as she dipped a duster into an open grate on Monday. “The area has been closed, but our work continues.”