Hong Kong saw a new wave of COVID-19 cases this past week, disrupting a period when the city’s total had plateaued at 1,000 cases since mid-April.
In response to the latest surge of new infections in the Chinese-ruled city, Chinese state-run media was quick to assign the blame on local protesters and the opposition camp—citizens and politicians who oppose Beijing’s tightening control over the city.
Hong Kong witnessed a record number of daily infection cases on Sunday, with local health officials reporting 108 new cases.
That means within one week, from July 13 to 19, new cases totaled 416. For the week ending on July 12, there were 201 new confirmed cases. From June 29 to July 5, local health officials reported 69 new cases.
On Monday afternoon, Hong Kong health officials reported that an additional 73 patients were confirmed with COVID-19, bringing the city’s total to more than 1,900 cases.
Chinese state media were quick to blame the spike in cases on the local protest movement, ignited last year over Beijing’s encroachment into city affairs, and politicians who support and advocate for the cause.
On Sunday evening, Chinese state-run media Xinhua published an article, claiming that public opinion in Hong Kong condemned the city’s opposition camp for causing the latest outbreak. Another Chinese state-run media, People’s Net, reposted the Xinhua article.
The Xinhua article claimed that the opposition camp’s recent primaries and a recent march as events that triggered the new outbreak.
On July 1, large crowds took to the streets of Causeway Bay in protest against Beijing’s new national security law, which was formally adopted hours earlier by China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC).
The police arrested over 350 protesters, charging at least 10 people for violating the national security law, which criminalizes individuals for any acts of subversion, secession, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, with maximum penalties of life imprisonment.
The primary elections, organized by local political association Power for Democracy, were held for two days beginning on July 11, with the aim of selecting the most promising candidates to run for legislative office. The opposition camp hopes to win a majority, or more than 35 seats, in the city’s legislature, with the election scheduled for Sept. 6.
The city’s Legislative Council is not fully based on a proportional representation system; half of the seats are “functional constituencies,” which represent business sectors and are voted in by mostly pro-Beijing elites. This has historically ensured that the legislature remains majority pro-Beijing.
Organizers of the primaries took measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19, such as prohibiting more than 50 people from gathering inside voting stations across Hong Kong, in compliance with government regulations. Additionally, voters were asked to wear a mask, and their temperatures were taken upon entering a voting station.
Over 600,000 voters cast their votes in the primary elections, according to the organizers.
Xinhua published another article in the early hours of Monday with the same accusations. It further accused the opposition camp of “achieving its political goals while neglecting the safety of the local citizens and becoming Hong Kong’s biggest loophole in the city’s recent prevention efforts.”
The second Xinhua article was reposted by China’s hawkish state-run media Global Times.
But experts contend that it is the local pro-Beijing government that has failed to enact proper prevention measures. Two leading medical experts in Hong Kong—David Hui, an infectious disease expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist at the University of Hong Kong—told local media that a government border policy was creating loopholes in the city’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
The policy exempts certain inbound travelers coming from mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan from compulsory quarantine upon their arrival in the city. These travelers include cross-boundary goods vehicle drivers, aircraft crew members, and certain government officials, agents, and contractors.
Hui said these exempt individuals were the reason why local health officials could not trace the source of many new infection cases, according to local media RTHK.
Speaking to local media i-Cable News, Yuen suspected that the “patient zero” of the latest outbreak could be a taxi driver who picked up infected passengers. The driver then became infected and passed on the virus to more people in Hong Kong.
The latest outbreak has also brought into question whether elections for Legislative Council could still be held on Sept. 6.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, at a press conference on Sunday afternoon, said the date of the elections remained unchanged. But she added that she could only say so at this moment because “no one can tell me how the epidemic will evolve.”
On Monday morning, Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s sole representative to NPC’s standing committee, told local media that the Hong Kong government should not rule out postponing the September elections since it could not guarantee that the epidemic would be brought under control by that time.