HONG KONG – First, it was travelers and students who brought the coronavirus back to Hong Kong from Europe and the US. Then seamanships and patrons of the bar were the ones to spread infections.
In the last wave, a large group appears to have started in ballroom dance halls popular with older women and then moved on to other dance halls and banquet-style restaurants.
For much of the year, every time Hong Kong hit a spate of coronavirus cases, new problems surfaced in other places and in different populations weeks later.
Similar patterns hold true in other parts of Asia, which are still struggling daily to keep their Covid-19 rates from spiraling out of control. And the latest waves of infection are more difficult to understand than previous ones – just as winter forces more people indoors and increases the risk of transmission.
Japan and South Korea are seeing some of their highest one-day numbers since the pandemic began, largely due to diffuse clusters in metropolitan Tokyo and Seoul. While Hong Kong is still below its high for the year, it is poised to surge to the level of its summer wave, in large part carried by experts who call incomprehensible “silent” broadcasts.
“We’re getting better at having a large testing capacity and we have a lot of contact tracing resources, but the cycle repeats itself,” said Kwok Kin-on, an epidemiologist at Hong Kong University of China.
Compared to the US and Europe, the virus is still relatively strong in check in much of East Asia. Hong Kong, which has a population of around 7.5 million, had a total of 5,947 cases and 108 deaths, a low rate for any city.
However, the recent setbacks underscore the challenges the world will continue to face until there is a widespread vaccine. With cases rising to alarming levels again in recent weeks, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong had to quickly recalibrate their strategies.
Travel bubbles that were announced with great enthusiasm are now stopped. Weeks after reopening, the schools were closed again. Bars and restaurants close early or switch to takeaway menus.
“We need solidarity in such a situation, but as everyone knows, it is not easy,” said Dr. Kim Woo-joo, an infectious disease specialist at Korea University in Seoul.
To complicate your efforts is in the nature of the current outbreaks. Transmission occurs not only in crowded places like nightclubs, but also in environments like the home and work where governments have fewer opportunities to control people’s behavior.
On Thursday, South Korea recorded more than 500 new cases for the first time in about eight months. Experts say there doesn’t appear to be a single large cluster, as it did when churches and anti-government protests sparked previous outbreaks.
Pandemic fatigue didn’t help. Medical staff are exhausted, young people are bored because they cannot travel, and business owners are frustrated because they have to pull back or close early.
Kim Ill-soon, who owns a tea shop in a residential area of Seoul, said her business was shut down after the government banned people from living in cafes this week. Take-out is still an option, but for many people, part of the raffle is to have a chat over tea in person.
“I’ve apologized to my customers for the past two days,” she said.
In Japan, authorities reported around 2,000 infections a day. The cases are spreading rapidly in Tokyo, where a record 570 infections were reported on Friday, and around Osaka, Sapporo and other cities. Compared to the summer waves, which mostly affected young people, the current wave has hit many people in their forties and older.
As a token of concern in the country, Japan’s Imperial Budget Authority announced on Friday that it had decided to cancel Emperor Naruhito’s annual New Year event at the Imperial Palace in January – the first such cancellation since 1990, when the country mourned his grandfather’s death.
“Please don’t underestimate the coronavirus,” said Dr. Toshio Nakagawa, president of the Japan Medical Association, told reporters in Tokyo on Wednesday. “We cannot allow Japan to become like the US or Europe.”
The hope is that coronavirus vaccines will soon give health officials around the world a new weapon to fight the pandemic. However, they will not be available until spring at the earliest.
By then and as winter draws nearer and the number of cases rises, medical officials in much of East Asia are pleading for vigilance – and rethinking their pandemic policy.
In the spring and summer, the main focus was on combating clusters at their source. Officials in Tokyo and Seoul, for example, responded to those who had spread mainly from nightclubs by temporarily closing the venues. Hong Kong imposed restrictions on crews after a cluster was returned to cargo ships.
This time around, officials seem determined to take a more nuanced approach, apparently due to concerns about the economic rubble that the pandemic has already caused. However, doing so in the face of such a harmful pathogen can present new challenges.
A new contact tracing app is being launched in Hong Kong that will allow people to volunteer to scan QR codes on their smartphones when visiting a location so that officials can better target more prominent clusters. However, such apps have had limited success in South Korea, the UK and elsewhere.
It can be difficult to get a lot of people to download the app when the government doesn’t provide more details about how personal information is analyzed. The issue of data protection is particularly sensitive in Hong Kong as the Chinese government has tightened the territory.
“Hong Kongers are most active in protecting themselves and their families, but they must demonstrate how the app benefits them and maintains their privacy,” said Leung Chi-chiu, a respiratory professional with the Hong Kong Medical Association.
The recent waves of infections have also forced governments to slow down their preliminary efforts to open up.
Hong Kong residents rushed to purchase plane tickets to take advantage of a proposed travel bubble with Singapore before the details were fully known. The special flights would have enabled residents of both places to avoid 14-day quarantines on arrival.
The travel bubble should start this week. Then cases in Hong Kong increased and officials postponed the start to December 6th.
In Japan, Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has scaled back a roughly $ 16 billion campaign to stimulate domestic tourism during the pandemic. But he didn’t scrap it entirely and said it helps support the local economy.
For people like Noriko Hashida, who sells cosmetics in Osaka, taking a vacation with eight of her work colleagues last week was well worth the risk of infection.
Ms. Hashida said a government tourism grant enabled them to jump for a luxury hotel that would normally have been outside their price range. “We enjoyed it so much,” she said.
Nevertheless, they decided to cancel a sightseeing tour of the island as the look was a bit awkward.
“We thought local residents would not be comfortable seeing visitors from Osaka, where infections are spreading quickly,” she said.
Mike Ives and Tiffany May reported from Hong Kong and Makiko Inoue from Tokyo. Youmi Kim reported from Seoul, South Korea.