With nearly 3,000 lives lost in less than three months, Hong Kong’s fifth wave of Covid-19 – led by the highly infectious Omicron variant – has dealt a deadly blow to the once zero-Covid city.

Although Omicron is understood to be less severe than the Delta variant, the World Health Organization warned in January that it “should not be seen as mild” because most observations on the impact of Omicron had been made in countries with high vaccination rates.

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Caritas Medical Centre in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong during the fifth-wave Covid-19 outbreak. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

In Hong Kong, particularly, the variant proved the danger it poses to public health as it brought an acute surge in both daily case numbers and deaths, and overwhelmed the city’s public medical services.

As hospitals were running out of isolation wards, hundreds of elderly patients in need of treatment were forced to stay in emergency departments, corridors or even lift lobbies. Meanwhile, the city’s public mortuaries were operating at capacity and refrigerated containers had to be set up for the temporary storage of corpses outside hospitals.

But how bad is Hong Kong’s latest wave of infections? HKFP compares the city’s latest Covid-19 statistic with three other international cities – London, New York and Singapore – in the hope of providing a clearer picture:

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The highly transmissible Omicron variant caused deaths to rise in all four cities, especially after their respective holiday seasons, but Hong Kong’s recent surge in fatalities was unmatched.

While the overloaded Hospital Authority has been unable to produce an accurate daily number of Covid-related deaths due to data backlogs, David Hui, government advisor and respiratory medicine expert, told HKFP that the rolling average of daily reported deaths could still reflect the situation “as it takes into account most residue cases.”

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Hui also said that at the moment, it would be impossible to calculate the accurate Covid-19 case death rate for Hong Kong as “we haven’t known the total number of cases yet.” According to Hui, many residents have tested positive using rapid antigen tests and their results might not be included in the city’s official case count.

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Hong Kong’s recent death rate has already surpassed the peak of London’s seven-day rolling average per 100,000, which occurred in April 2020, when the pandemic was still at its earliest stages and vaccinations had not yet been produced.

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In addition to rising fatalities, Hong Kong saw the steepest increase in Covid-19 infections compared to the three other cities, surpassing significant rises in case numbers in both New York City and London.

Poor vaccination coverage among elderly

Unvaccinated elderly citizens have accounted for a large proportion of Hong Kong’s Covid-19 casualties.

As of Thursday, Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection (CHP) has reported 2,937 deaths since the fifth-wave Covid-19 emerged, of which 2,796 were patients aged 60 or above, accounting for over 95 per cent of the death toll.

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Citing internal meetings at the Hospital Authority, Hui told HKFP on Friday that the median age of deceased Covid-19 patients in Hong Kong was 85.

He added that many who were hospitalised had underlying diseases and were in a serious condition. “60 per cent [of these cases] cannot be saved,” he said

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According to Hui, the low vaccination coverage among older populations in Hong Kong was the main reason behind the high death toll. “For those aged 80 or more, only 30 per cent have received two or more jabs.”

The proportion of elderly people aged 80 or above who have received two doses of Covid-19 vaccines in London, New York City or Singapore are at least double of Hong Kong’s figure.

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Currently, nearly 90 per cent of Hong Kong’s firth-wave Covid-19 deaths were unvaccinated or had only received one jab. CHP analysis showed that the fatality rate of fully vaccinated patients was 0.07 per cent. That rose to 1.84 per cent among those who had received less than two doses if infected.

Speaking during Friday morning’s regular press meeting, Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the city’s past measures to boost vaccinations among the elderly had been insufficient and that authorities would prioritise promoting vaccinations among elderly citizens and children.

A week earlier, leading microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung said the best time to vaccinate the elderly in care homes had passed. The elderly had “paid a very high price” and suffered a high death toll in the current wave of outbreak, he said.

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.