In early August, an Ebola scare erupted at Chungking Mansions, a commercial cum residential development in Tsim Sha Tsui that is well-known for its motley mix of multinational occupants, mostly traders from Africa.
A 32-year-old Nigerian man was rushed to hospital after showing early symptoms of the deadly virus such as vomiting and diarrhea. Tests proved negative, but the incident highlighted the city’s vulnerability to an outbreak.
Hong Kong is an international transport hub, and there is an increasing flow of passenger traffic to and from the African continent. Guangzhou, which hosts the largest African community in Asia, is just a three-hour hop by train.
Although there are no direct flights between Hong Kong and the countries hardest hit by the disease — Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone – a number of airlines including Cathay Pacific, South African Airways, Ethiopian Airlines and Air Seychelles operate direct flights to other African destinations.
Kenya Airways operate transfer flights between Hong Kong and Liberia and Sierra Leone through Nairobi.
Aside from the city’s transport links with Africa, the threat may also come from across the border. Some cite the SARS outbreak of 2003, which came from neighboring Guangdong province, as a clear indication that an outbreak on the mainland could easily spread to the territory.
Peter Piot, an expert in contagious diseases and global health who is also director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, warned at a recent seminar that Hong Kong must guard against Ebola risk from across the border.
Hongkongers have reasons to worry.
Last week, international media picked up a report that briefly appeared on Xinhua’s Japanese website, saying 43 people were found positive of Ebola in Guangdong. The report was removed from the website less than five minutes after its release, but some netizens were able to retrieve the smothered news. Later an official from the province’s health and family planning commission said all of the 43 fever cases tested negative of the virus.
Guangzhou, the provincial capital, is home to at least 20,000 Africans, not including the undocumented ones who, according to a China Daily report, could number about 15 times that figure.
With more than 190 flights to Africa per month, Guangzhou is a key gateway for African visitors to China. The city accounted for 60 percent of African arrivals last year, a local immigration officer told the Global Times.
There are many cases of Africans overstaying their visas, and if one of them develops a fever or feels unwell, there is a distinct possibility that they may choose not to go to a hospital or registered clinic for fear of being caught.
The situation got more complicated with the city hosting the autumn China Import and Export Fair (Canton Fair), where some 200,000 overseas buyers, including over 10,000 from Africa, are attending. The three-week fair concludes this Tuesday but that doesn’t mean the danger has passed: Ebola’s incubation period varies from two days to three weeks.
Starting from October, travelers from Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone are given free cellphones with a pre-paid SIM card, together with a health kit containing a thermometer, a heat rub and a map of Guangzhou, at the city’s airport and other immigration checkpoints.
The travelers are asked to switch on their phones for 21 days for emergency contact and failure to do so will be reflected on their immigration records and may affect their next entry.
A total of 98 phones had been distributed as of the end of the month, according to Xinhua. The visitors were told to stay at designated hotels during the Canton Fair.
A spokesman for the Chinese General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine said 88 of the 26,235 visitors from Ebola-hit countries underwent medical tests after developing a fever in the past three months but no case of Ebola has been confirmed.
Piot, meanwhile, warned that authorities should not only focus on African visitors but also keep an eye on compatriots who have been to the continent.
China is Africa’s largest trading partner and the continent is a major recipient of China’s overseas investment with firms rushing to set up mining and construction businesses there. The number of Chinese in Africa has spiked in recent years and many of them will be coming back in the next couple of months for the Lunar New Year.
After the Canton Fair, China will also host mega events this month including the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing and the Shanghai International Marathon. Beijing and Shanghai also have direct flights to Africa. There is no official APEC participant from Africa, but Beijing must prepare for any emergency situation. At least 30 athletes from Kenya and Ethiopia have registered for the Shanghai marathon.
Being vigilant does not mean we should be paranoid or succumb to fear and panic.
Last month a Chinese traveler with severe fever was hospitalized in Los Angeles, and local media reported it as California’s first suspected case of Ebola. The woman was put in an isolation ward for 48 hours and after a thorough medical checkup, she was found to be suffering from acute gastroenteritis.
A few days after she returned to China, her kid was not allowed to go to school after parents heard about what happened to her in the United States, and the city’s health and quarantine department wanted to put her under isolation again.
She had to produce all of her medical examination records and go through another check to prove that she is not infected.
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