By Manon Billing

For the last eight years Mathilde and her family have called Hong Kong home, but as the coronavirus tears through the city they are joining an exodus of foreign workers looking for an escape route.

“We are leaving and we will come back to empty our house whenever that is possible,” she told AFP, declining to give her surname and nationality. “All our close friends are leaving.”

hong kong expat airport departure Covid-19
Expat familes depart Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok international airport on March 6, 2022 as travel restrictions hit hard on Hong Kong’s white collar “expat” foreign workers, who make up roughly 10 percent of the population with borders effectively sealed to visitors and residents who do return have faced 2-3 weeks in expensive hotel quarantines throughout most of the pandemic. Photo: Peter Parks/AFP.

For Mathilde it was the risk of being separated from her three Hong Kong-born children that was the final straw after two years of tough “zero-Covid” restrictions.

“We want to get our children out of here above all,” she said.

Hong Kong used mainland China’s “zero-Covid” strategy to keep the virus at bay, until the highly infectious Omicron variant broke through at the start of the year.

But while other places that deployed similar tactics such as Australia, New Zealand and Singapore are learning to live with the virus, Hong Kong is doubling down — even as it records tens of thousands of new infections each day.

The city has been ordered by China, the only major economy still pursuing zero-Covid, to curb the outbreak at all costs.

All 7.4 million residents will be tested later this month and authorities are building a network of isolation camps to house the infected, deepening fears that families will be separated in the months ahead.

covid covid-19 quarantine tsing yi isolation
Tsing Yi Covid-19 quarantine facility. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

As a result, departures have skyrocketed with a net outflow of 71,000 people — including 63,000 residents — in February, the highest since the pandemic began.

‘No road map’

Travel restrictions have been hard on Hong Kong’s foreign workers, who make up nearly 10 percent of the population.

Borders have been effectively sealed to visitors and residents who do return have faced two to three weeks in expensive hotel quarantines throughout most of the pandemic.

“If there was a road map and we knew that there’s some light at the end of the tunnel we might stay,” said Heiko, a German entrepreneur who works in artificial intelligence.

“Since this is not the case… we’ve decided to leave.”

Heiko’s youngest daughter recently celebrated her second birthday.

“Her entire life has been a sequence of lockdowns, multiple stays in quarantine hotels, closed playgrounds and closed kindergartens. She’s met her grandparents only once,” he sighed.

aircraft plane covid-19 airport
Aircrafts in the Hong Kong International Airport during the Covid-19 pandemic. Photo: GovHK.

Lucy Porter Jordan, a sociologist at the University of Hong Kong, said that, before Omicron, Hong Kong “had the restrictions but you also had the safety”.

“If you take that out of the equation, you end up with this kind of perfect storm.”

Most of those leaving, she added, were people with children and “people that have the means”.

Over the last fortnight Hong Kong has looked more like New York or London at the start of the pandemic than a city which had two years of hard-won breathing room to get ready.

The government was caught flat-footed with few plans in place to deal with a mass Omicron-fuelled outbreak.

Hospitals and morgues were quickly overwhelmed and the city’s current death rate is four times Singapore’s, mostly accounted for by unvaccinated elderly residents.

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Near-empty shelves in a supermarket in Kennedy Town on March 1, 2022. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Panic buying has stripped shelves bare, schools remain shuttered and summer holidays have been brought forward so classrooms can be used for mass testing.

Talent drain

Companies and industry groups have been increasingly public in their talent-drain warnings. The European Union’s local office estimates 10 percent of its nationals have left since the pandemic began.

Multiple airlines have reported a surge of bookings in recent weeks while shipping container prices have doubled in a year. International shipping company SendMyBag told AFP outbound shipments from Hong Kong have increased four-fold compared with 2021.

“Everybody is looking for tickets to go, people are fighting for the containers,” said Lin, a mother of two grown children who declined to give her nationality.

Lin is looking to move to Dubai after 12 years in Hong Kong and said many of her colleagues were doing the same.

social distancing skyline mental health economy property market covid covid-19
Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

“A friend who’s leaving next week had a three-year-old BMW and she said ‘You know what, I’m just giving it to charity because no one will buy it anyway.'”

The current exodus adds to a wave of migration already under way of local Hong Kongers, which began after China cracked down against democracy protests.

Between June 2020 and June 2021 Hong Kong saw its biggest population decrease in 60 years, and there is little sign of that changing.

“We are now only in the starting period of this wave,” said Chung Kim-wah, head of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Research Institute.

“Many more young people will choose to move away if they have a chance”.

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