Low-income families in Hong Kong are under severe emotional stress, with many facing a drop in wages or unemployment during the city’s economic slump amid the coronavirus outbreak, a local charitable organisation said on Monday.

In a survey of 309 adult Hongkongers from low-income families conducted last month, Caritas found that 38 per cent of interviewees said they were out of work. Twenty-one per cent said they were asked to take unpaid leave, while 10 per cent said they could not go to work because they had to look after their children. Hong Kong schools have been suspended since February over fears of virus transmission.

Caritas survey low income conronavirus March 9 2020
Representatives from low-income families and Caritas. Photo: Caritas.

More than 80 per cent of respondents said they would face financial difficulties in less than three months due to an income drop.

Additionally, Caritas revealed over half of the low-income families surveyed said they experienced stress over purchasing face masks and other protective items amid citywide shortages.

More than half of respondents said they had reused their masks at least twice, using methods such as steaming or flipping the mask inside-out.

Twenty per cent of respondents claimed that they had not left home for more than seven days. Caritas said that living in cramped conditions and avoiding going outside has had an impact on the mental health of low-income family members.

Ah Lei, who works in catering and lives in a subdivided flat, said she has felt “immense pressure” since the start of the outbreak. She said she has been staying at home with her 5-year-old son, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

She said he became very upset when they could not visit the park due to their lack of face masks: “I could only tell my son that we would die from the virus if we went outside.”

Caritas survey low income conronavirus March 9 2020
Caritas spokesperson Wong Wai-hon and Ah Lei. Photo: Caritas.

Caritas spokesperson Wong Wai-hon said low-income families in Hong Kong have faced a “three nos” situation in relation to the outbreak – no job, no face masks and no outings. He said the government has failed to introduce specific measures to aid them during this difficult time.

“Low-income families lack the financial means to buy basic anti-epidemic supplies. This increases their risk of infection,” Wong said.

The NGO urged the government to distribute protective supplies to vulnerable groups and take measures to combat price gouging.

The government should also implement immediate and sustainable financial measures to assist the unemployed, and create jobs for those considered to be less competitive, Caritas said.

Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.