HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hundreds of medical workers went on strike in Hong Kong on Monday to demand the government shuts the border with mainland China to prevent the spread of a coronavirus and ease pressure on a stretched health sector.
The Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA), which has about 18,000 members, said 2,400 workers took part in the strike, despite calls by the government for medical workers not to.
Hong Kong has 15 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, which emerged in central China in December and has killed more than 360 people there and sent jitters through global markets.
“(We) hope that these strikes will make the government respond to our five demands, most importantly to stop the spread of the coronavirus in Hong Kong,” said medical worker Tracy Pui, who queued up with colleagues to sign a petition in support of the HAEA.
The demands are for the government to close the border with the mainland, facilitate the distribution of masks to the public, ensure that front-line medical workers have adequate supplies and protection, provide enough isolation wards for patients, and guarantee no reprisals for striking medical staff.
About 100 people rallied in the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district in support of the health workers’ union, with some holding banners saying: “Close Borders, Contain Epidemics.”
The scare over the virus comes after months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, triggered by what many residents see as unnecessary interference by Beijing in city affairs.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has suspended high-speed rail services to the mainland and cross-border ferries, but she has stopped short of closing the entire border, saying it would be “inappropriate and impractical”.
Panic-stricken residents have emptied shelves in major supermarkets in Hong Kong, stockpiling meat, rice and cleaning products as fears escalate over the coronavirus.
About 90 percent of the city’s food is imported, with the bulk coming from the mainland, according to official data.
The coronavirus is expected to pile pressure on the city’s economy, which sank into recession in the third quarter as the often violent protests scared away tourists and took a heavy toll on retailers.
Toy shop owner Lam Wa-yin, 45, said closing the border would intensify worries about supplies of staples.
“They’ve started rushing to buy supplies even before they fully close the borders,” Lam said.
“It’ll get worse if it is fully closed. Especially food, people have been rushing to buy oil, salt and rice, not to mention the face masks.”
Reporting By Joseph Campbell, Jessie Pang, Yoyo Chow; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree; Editing by Robert Birsel