Medical staff in Hong Kong are threatening to strike if the city's government doesn't shut down its border with mainland China in the face of the coronavirus epidemic now spreading outwards from central China with nearly 10,000 confirmed cases and more than 200 deaths reported on Friday.
A recently formed HA Employees Alliance says its 6,700 members, all of whom are employed by the government's Hospital Authority, will vote on Saturday whether or not to strike over the demand.
The union says that most coronavirus patients in Hong Kong are from the mainland, and hospitals won’t be able to cope if the number of such cases keeps rising.
If it votes to strike, then its members will walk out for five days started Monday. Around 70 percent of them are nurses and eight percent are doctors. The initial phase won't include emergency services, but the second phase will, its spokesman said.
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam has refused to shut the border, relying on partial closure of some routes into the city from neighboring Guangdong province, but not the busiest road crossings.
Lam said a total shutdown would go against World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines.
"Let me quote what is in the World Health Organization statement," she said. "It makes it very clear that countries and governments are cautioned against actions that promote stigma or discrimination."
She called on medical staff not to go on strike.
"I sincerely hope and appeal to our health staff in the Hospital Authority to consider very seriously any plan to have a strike, because at the end of the day, those who suffer will be the patients and Hong Kong’s healthcare system," Lam said.
Democratic Party lawmaker Helena Wong said protecting the lives of Hong Kong's seven million residents couldn't be seen as discrimination.
"If this is a form of discrimination, then what about the city lockdowns that are happening across all provinces and cities in mainland China?" Wong said. "Are the Chinese discriminating against the Chinese?"
A recent opinion poll shows that around 80 percent of Hong Kong people are in favor of a total border shutdown to limit the impact of the Wuhan novel coronavirus epidemic, called nCoV-2019 (Wuhan) by the WHO.
Several countries, including the United States, issued travel warnings for China, a day after the WHO declared the coronavirus a global health emergency.
As the U.K. reported its first confirmed cases, the U.S. and Japan warned their nationals to abandon any non-urgent travel plans to China, while Iran's health minister called for a ban on any incoming travelers from China.
Singapore has already shut its borders to anyone with a recent history of travel to China, and won't be issuing any visas to Chinese nationals.
Meanwhile, the Italian government has declared a state of emergency and stopped all air traffic with China after two Chinese tourists were confirmed to have the virus.
'Full confidence and capability'
China said it has taken "the most comprehensive and rigorous prevention and control measures," a foreign ministry spokeswoman said in response to the WHO declaration.
"We have full confidence and capability to win this fight," Hua Chunying said in a statement.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had commended China for its efforts and said the WHO was not recommending curbs on travel or trade with Beijing. A WHO spokesman said keeping borders open prevented illegal or unofficial border crossings.
Dutch airline KLM, Air France KLM SA, British Airways, Germany's Lufthansa and Virgin Atlantic have suspended flights to China.
The virus has spread more rapidly than the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), to which is very similar, but appears to have a lower mortality rate, estimated at two percent.
Harvard epidemiologist Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding said that the WHO's declaration of a public health emergency of international concern sends a warning to governments to be on high alert and legally binds them to coordinate their response with the WHO.
"There's so much that is political, when it comes to pandemic announcements," Feigl-Ding said. "[But] the numbers aren't going to slow down. We don't expect this to plateau until at least mid-to-end of February, if we're lucky, maybe even March."
"It all depends on public health control measures, and what else we learn about the virus, and how it spreads."
Feigl-Ding said he was "very concerned," by the situation, but that quarantining an entire country wasn't a reasonable response.
"Some of these [measures] are very extreme, I will say, and I'm not sure if I agree with all of them," he told RFA."
Reported by Lu Xi for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Shen Hua and Luisetta Mudie.