As tens of thousands of Covid-19 infections pile onto Hong Kong’s public health system every day, the city’s ambulances and paramedics have never been so overwhelmed. To cope with the constant calls from patients in need of a lift to designated Covid clinics, the government has set up a dedicated fleet of some 300 taxis to help transport them.

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Mars Chan was among the first batch of taxi drivers to join the fleet. For 14 days from last Friday, Chan will exclusively ferry passengers infected by the coronavirus. To indicate that his vehicle is an “anti-epidemic taxi” carrying infectious patients, it will bear a blue and white zebra-striped label.

‘Never felt such stress’

When Covid-19 cases started rising rapidly in early February and ambulance services were stretched thin, a Hospital Authority official said that those who tested positive using a rapid antigen test should drive or take a taxi to hospital to avoid using public transport.

People get off a designated taxi transporting Covid-19 patients to a designated Covid-19 clinic in Shau Kei Wan on February 19, 2022. Photo: Bertha Wang/ AFP.

The suggestion was initially criticised, with commenters calling it tone-deaf and arguing that it could lead to further transmissions in the community. But, soon after, authorities announced that seven government clinics would be converted to receive Covid-19 patients, and 300 taxi drivers were invited to join a fleet to take patients from their homes to the clinics for free.

The drivers – who earn HK$3,000 per day and are not allowed to take non-Covid patients during the two-week job – must follow a set of instructions to protect themselves while preventing transmissions.

Chan said he underestimated the job. “On the first day, I broke down by noon,” he said. “I’ve never felt such stress.”

Mars Chan, one of 300 taxi drivers who signed up to shuttle Covid-19 patients. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Apart from having to deal with the anxiety of being infected by Covid-19 patients in close proximity, it was also psychologically straining to deal with unwelcoming looks from others, he said.

People avoided his vehicle like the plague, Chan said, adding that he was scolded by cleaners for throwing his disposable protective robe and masks into a government rubbish bin, even though they were sealed in a plastic bag. “They despised me,” he said. “I felt I were discriminated against.”

Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Even his peers mocked him for taking up the work. “They said, ‘good for you, it’s easy to make HK$3,000. Remember to pay your taxes,'” he recalled. “I felt lonely.”

It was also physically taxing. Rules given to Covid taxi drivers require that the car windows remain open, allowing maximum airflow and thereby reducing the chances of transmission within a confined space. Last week, this meant driving in piercing winds and rains as temperatures plunged to below 10 degrees Celsius.

For one whole day, Chan endured the wind chill along with his sick passengers, while the interior of his taxi was soaked by the rain. His eye goggles fogged up and obstructed his vision as he drove, pushing him to his edge. A telephone interview with HKFP was delayed, as Chan ended the day with a splitting headache and went to bed early.

Aside from driving a taxi, Chan and his wife also operate a Facebook page and YouTube channel, where he uploads videos of his work life and livestreams from his vehicle dashboard on most days.

When he has a free moment, he will chat with viewers. A couple of them would join the stream as soon as he switched it on. They simply kept him company until the end of a work day, providing him with much needed emotional support, Chan said.

Precautionary measures

Before starting the job, the government issued drivers in the Covid fleet with disposable robes, face shields, surgical masks – although Chan said the “experts said the virus could pass through those” – and gloves, and distributed instructions on how to wear and remove them properly to avoid contamination during the process.

Acting as a liaison for the authorities, representatives from taxi associations supplied the drivers with an air filtering machine to be attached to the front passenger seat. The vehicles were treated with a photocatalyst coating, which is supposed to suppress bacteria and viruses on surfaces.

Chan does a rapid antigen test after a day’s work. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

The drivers were also instructed to wipe down their vehicle’s interior after every work day with diluted bleach, but no bleach nor sterilisation wipes were supplied, so Chan had to buy his own.

To be absolutely safe, Chan bought his own air filters that cost HK$150 a pair to go with a full-face gas mask, and used bleach much more concentrated than the recommended 1:49 dilution ratio. “It felt like being at the swimming pool all day,” he said.

Minus all costs – which cover car rental costs, gas, tunnel fees, and cleaning and protective supplies – Chan said he makes about HK$2,000 per day, slightly more than on a normal work day during the fifth wave.

Patients in need of a ride can make a booking through the service’s website. Their requests will be assigned by taxi call centres to drivers in the Covid fleet. From 8 a.m. to about 6 p.m. everyday, Chan takes between six and nine Covid-19 passengers, a fraction of the roughly 20 rides he would normally do when operating as a normal taxi.

Chan opted for a full-face gas mask paid out of his own pocket. He was issued with surgical masks from the government. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

“The gratitude and courtesy these passengers showed” were unparalleled to what he would experience on a typical work day, he said.

‘Hongkongers must save themselves’

President of the Taxi Owners & Dealers Association Ng Kwan-sing said the scheme is taking and distributing up to 2,000 bookings a day, showing a strong demand from the public. By the end of the two weeks, it is expected that the government would allow more drivers to join the scheme as it adds two more designated Covid clinics.

While he was aware that some drivers became infected with Covid, Ng said he did not know their numbers. Chan said he had heard from other drivers that around five to 10 Covid-19 taxi drivers have caught the conronavirus themselves, less than one week into the job.

The main issue, Ng said, was passengers making taxi bookings even though they had not secured a clinic appointment, or those who made several bookings to be sure they would arrive at the clinics on time. The government could consider requiring passengers to book for a taxi using their appointment reference number, he suggested.

As to whether the industry would ask for a higher day rate than HK$3,000, Ng said there was “a big demand” among drivers to join the scheme, but not everyone could meet requirements such as having to be fully vaccinated, or being literate with smart phones.

Seeing the success of Covid taxis, the government later added some 200 mini busses to the scheme to shuttle patients and their family members.

Chan receives a bleach spray-down with the help of his wife, Cat. Photo: Selina Cheng/HKFP.

Ultimately, Chan said he took the job because he believed “Hongkongers must save themselves,” and he wanted to be part of that effort.

While his family fully supported him, some of his friends who are frustrated with the government were less impressed by Chan’s initiative. They asked “Why did you help with the government’s show?” and said “He is showing himself as loyal, pro-government,” Chan recalled. “This was very upsetting,” he said tearfully.

“I want the infections to go down, so the government can’t keep us tied down any longer.”

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.