HONG KONG: A worker wearing PPE guards the entrance of HSBC bank main Hong Kong office after it was closed until further notice after three people tested positive for COVID-19 amid a recent wave of infections among the city's business and expatriate community in Hong Kong.-AFP

HONG KONG: Hong Kong health authorities have defended the practice of physically restraining some babies and children in coronavirus isolation wards after criticism built over the treatment of families under the city's strict anti-virus measures. Despite being one of the most densely packed cities in the world, Hong Kong has kept infections low thanks to some of the most stringent quarantine measures in the world, recording some 11,000 infections and 200 deaths since the pandemic began. Anyone who tests positive for the coronavirus is taken to isolation wards while those deemed "close contacts" are sent to mandatory government quarantine camps.

The measures have helped curb infections and have been in place for much of the past year, largely without complaint when cases were concentrated in low-income districts. But there has been growing pushback in recent weeks after an outbreak hit neighborhoods favored by wealthier-and more politically connected-white-collar locals and foreigners. Complaints include parents being separated from their children, mothers ordered not to breastfeed babies and some infants tied to beds to stop them moving around.

The pressure has led to a series of statements this week from health authorities defending their policies, including the use of restraints. "Generally speaking, the hospital will only consider the application of physical restraint on paediatric patients for the safety and well-being of the patient," the Hospital Authority said in a statement late Wednesday. "Appropriate and prior consent will be sought from the parents or guardians," it added. The Hospital Authority added parents who test negative would usually be allowed to accompany infected children on isolation wards if there is space.

'Tyranny of the urgent'

In recent days, the consulates of Switzerland, Britain and the United States have expressed concerns over how Hong Kong's tough anti-virus measures were impacting families, including worries that parents had about being separated from children. The US consulate temporarily closed earlier this week after two staff tested positive and were sent to an isolation ward.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam confirmed special permission had been granted to allow their children to join them instead of being sent into quarantine. Hong Kong's treatment of mothers during the pandemic has previously come under scrutiny. Last year, a group of expecting parents fought a successful campaign to allow partners into the delivery room after they were banned during a spike in coronavirus cases.

World Health Organization guidelines recommend birth partners be present and that infected mothers continue breastfeeding their babies. While authorities relented on birth partners, Hong Kong continues to tell mothers not to breastfeed on isolation wards.

"This is what we call the tyranny of the urgent-there is so much pressure to act quickly and aggressively in the context of public health events that other factors tend to get sidelined," Karen Grepin, a health policy expert at the University of Hong Kong who is currently studying how the pandemic impacts different genders, said. "Responding to a pandemic is more of a marathon than a sprint and thus we need to find ways of balancing the very important public health rationale of interventions with their gendered, economic, and social effects," she added.

Authorities have defended the use of quarantine camps arguing Hong Kong's notoriously cramped apartments are too small for families to self-isolate safely. They add that parents or guardians are usually allowed to accompany minors in camps and that officials try to meet the requirements of families on site. - AFP