Despite some of the world’s strictest quarantine rules, Hongkongers are returning in large numbers to see elderly and critically ill family members before it’s too late.

“It’s not just my mom that is dying. I mean, the whole plane of people that came back, no one really had a happy story,” said Valerie Portia, who returned to Hong Kong from San Francisco last summer as her mother was losing a six-year battle with breast cancer. 

Covid-19 coronavirus virus mask child
Photo: GovHK.

When the city’s borders closed in early 2020 many Hongkongers who live abroad postponed their annual visits. A year and a half later, with international borders as tightly shut as ever, some can no longer afford to delay their trips.

In the scramble for flights and hotel bookings, time is not on their side. In the saddest cases, loved ones arrive in time only for the funeral. 

In very rare circumstances quarantining relatives may be granted a compassionate visit to a critically ill family member or to a funeral, but the application process is complicated and time-consuming. Families describe spending hours on the phone, pleading to be granted a single 15-minute visit. 

“It’s awful you have to fly to see a loved one,” says Alfie Cheng, whose name was changed to protect the privacy of the family because her grandma is still in hospital. She returned to Hong Kong the day Typhoon Kompasu hit the city, meaning her flight was diverted to Manila while her terminally ill grandmother was rushed to St Teresa’s hospital with a high fever.

Hong Kong Airport Covid-19
New temporary specimen collection centre at the Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: GovHK.

When Alfie finally landed in Hong Kong after nearly two days on the plane she applied for a compassionate visit right away. She was assured by the Health Department that, if the situation became critical, she would be taken to the hospital and the paperwork would be handled afterwards. 

To apply for such a visit, the applicant must provide proof of relationship, such as a birth certificate, a letter from the hospital to confirm the patient’s critical condition or a death certificate and any other supporting documents that may be needed.

They must also get approval from the receiving facility – a hospital or a funeral home. Fortunately the condition of Alfie’s grandmother improved and the situation was no longer an emergency. 

“I’ve lost three precious weeks that I could’ve had with her and that’s what it comes down to.”

alfie cheng

A few days later, however, Alfie was told she would not be considered for compassionate visits because somebody on her flight had tested positive for Covid-19. Though Alfie was not classified as a close contact and had tested negative several times since then, she was told nothing could be done. 

In an email to HKFP, the Department of Health said it would consider the public health risk “whether the confinees are showing symptoms of Covid-19; the potential risks of visits by people under quarantine; and the consent of the receiving facility including the availability of infection control and disinfection measures in these facilities during and after the visit of the confinees.” 

hospital visit
File photo: Pixabay.

However, loose guidelines can delay decision-making and cause a great deal of uncertainty and stress. Families’ hopes are raised, only to be dashed later. In the end it often comes down to the hospital; the resources it has and whether its officials are willing to assert that a patient is dying. Families must sometimes fight to get a letter confirming that their loved one is near death. 

Last minute goodbyes

When Shirley Poon’s mother passed away in 2020 she was unable to return to Hong Kong because of the pandemic. A year later, her father became severely ill. She tried to find a way to visit him, but her father’s doctor refused to write a reference letter for a compassionate visit until she was actually in Hong Kong. “It seems like, if it’s not the last minute or the most critical thing at that moment, only then will they give you this kind of mercy,” she said. 

Without the assurance that she would be able to see her father, Shirley hesitated to fly to Hong Kong and leave her young children behind in the UK. Her father died a few days later. 

Families agree that the Department of Health has been helpful and kind, but blame the hospitals for a lack of humanity or the government for putting them in this situation in the first place. 

Petti Pang says she’s forever grateful to the Department of Health for letting her see her dying mother three times in two days. When Petti’s mother passed away on her third day of quarantine, a nurse at North Lantau hospital called her in the early hours of the morning to come one last time. Petti reached out to the Department of Health and was promptly picked up from her hotel around 3:45am. 

Petty and her mom
Petti and her mom in Boston, US, 2016. Photo: Courtesy of Petti.

When Petti arrived at the hospital, she was allowed to stay with her mother’s body to say a prayer and to wash her body as is custom. “To me, it was perfect in the sense that I could see her when she was still living, and also I was able to, you know, accompany her spiritually at the time that she passed.” 

Yet, many hospitals hesitate to grant compassionate visits as they try to balance the health and well-being of their patients with giving one family a chance to say goodbye. 

Petty  tattoo
After her mom passed Petti got a tattoo if a rose in her memory. Her mom’s English name was Rose. Photo: Courtesy of Petti.

The Hospital Authority (HA) told HKFP it did not compile statistics of compassionate visits arranged in public hospitals but that it adopted a “cautious and prudent approach.” After a hospital agrees to a visit, it will “then carefully assess the potential infection risks whether the compassionate visit is feasible, and advise on the infection control measures to be taken as appropriate during the visiting.”

‘Three precious weeks’

While families recognise the need to follow pandemic containment measures they describe the current situation as inhumane, especially since many of the returning diaspora live in the US and UK – places classified as high risk and thus requiring three weeks of quarantine.

Now in her final week of quarantine, Alfie questions the need for such a long period, urging the government to “follow the science.”

“I’ve lost three precious weeks that I could’ve had with her and that’s what it comes down to,” she says. 

Coming to terms with the fact that she would not be able to see her grandmother, Alfie redirected her efforts into getting her mother and aunt, who had arrived on a different flight with no positive cases, a compassionate visit. Eventually, the hospital agreed to grant Alfie’s mother a visit on condition that afterwards Alfie’s grandmother would remain in isolation for the duration of her daughter’s quarantine. 

“They [the visitors] are the people that are keeping her alive,” said Alfie, “So it’s doesn’t feel compassionate and it doesn’t feel right.” In addition to that they were slapped with a list of expenses for the visit, including HK$600 for PPE for her mother.

People wearing face mask as a precautionary measure against the coronavirus as they queue up outside restaurant in Hong Kong on August 23, 2020. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Chan Muk Kwong, superintendent of the Society for the Promotion of Hospice Care, emphasises the importance of visits, saying they often see patients’ health decline without the emotional support that family offers. 

“It goes both ways, right. It helps the patient feel more comfortable, feel more at ease with their family around, but it also helps family members sort of come to terms with losing their loved one, and it really helps the grieving process afterwards,” he says.

Their hospice care facility has allowed five or six compassionate visits a year over the course of the pandemic. 

Valerie with her parents at her wedding in Italy, 2019. Photo: Courtesy of Valerie.

Valerie Portia and her bother were granted one visit each to see their mother at Hong Kong Sanatorium and Hospital. “I think it makes a difference when someone is, you know, fighting for their life,” Valerie said. “Even a doctor said, ‘Wow she really turned around after your visit!'” Her mother held on for another three weeks after Valerie came out of quarantine before succumbing to her illness.

With over 90,000 Hongkongers having emigrated this year, according to government figures, and international borders shut for the foreseeable future, stories like these are bound to become more common — families who have been apart for years united at a loved one’s deathbed.

Despite the effort and money spent jumping through all the hoops and hurdles, Alfie says it’s worth it. “You’d quarantine for a year if you thought you could spend another day with her.”

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Teele Rebane is a final year journalism student at the University of Hong Kong.