HONG KONG — The Hong Kong government, which has faced growing demands to evacuate its residents from mainland China after one died of the coronavirus, said on Monday that it would begin bringing people back from Hubei Province, the center of the outbreak.
Thousands of Hong Kong residents have been unable to return after much of Hubei was put on lockdown last month. Their worries were heightened when officials said on Sunday that a 77-year-old Hong Kong man who was infected with the coronavirus had died in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei.
Hong Kong lawmakers had demanded to know why some Hong Kong residents in Japan were whisked home on chartered flights last week, while others remained stuck in mainland China.
“We know that it was not only a decision for the Hong Kong government,” said Ivan Choy, a political science lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “It was also the decision of the Japanese and the mainland governments.”
More than a dozen countries have evacuated citizens from Wuhan. But Beijing complained that the United States’ moves to get its citizens and diplomats out of the city had created a panic. It showed little interest in letting people from Hong Kong join the exodus.
Hong Kong is part of China but operates under a model of “one country, two systems,” with its own local government, courts and border controls. Despite the city’s autonomy, its inability to evacuate residents earlier was a sharp reminder of Beijing’s ultimate authority.
The Hong Kong government said that it had received more than 1,400 requests for help from Hubei, involving 2,700 people in more than three dozen cities across the province. Many of them traveled to the area ahead of the Lunar New Year, only to be marooned when Wuhan and other cities were put under lockdown a month ago.
James To, a pro-democracy legislator in Hong Kong who has been helping more than a dozen residents stranded in Hubei, said that many were angry that foreigners had been able to leave the area while they could not.
“They thought, other countries have evacuated their citizens, and they’ve all left, but why is the Hong Kong government like this?” Mr. To said. Some were also anxious about what might happen the longer they stayed, including fears of being detained as a suspected case and placed under isolation at local facilities, where they could then become infected.
One Hong Kong resident trapped in Wuhan is 36 weeks pregnant. Her 3-year-old son has heart disease and is due for a scan in Hong Kong next month.
Her husband said in a voice message shared by Mr. To’s office that the family had not been able to return to Hong Kong after Wuhan closed its roads, and had not ventured outdoors for more than a month.
“What worries us is that the birth wouldn’t go smoothly and we wouldn’t be able to receive the treatment needed,” said the husband, who would only disclose his family name, Chan. “We hope that the government takes us back as quickly as possible.”
The evacuation will start in Wuhan before taking people from other cities in Hubei, and the process will give priority to pregnant women, students and those with chronic diseases, officials said on Monday.
Ten Hong Kong residents in Hubei have been confirmed to have coronavirus infections, including one person in critical condition and one who has been discharged.
The Hong Kong government said that it considered arranging the return of residents from Hubei a matter of “great importance.” But it admitted that there were logistical challenges, with some people located in remote cities.
“It may take up to eight to 10 hours’ drive from these cities to Wuhan,” the government said in an emailed statement. “This situation is unique as citizens of other countries have mostly stayed in Wuhan or nearby areas.”
Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, said the city had made a priority of helping residents in places hit by the coronavirus, regardless of whether they were in mainland China or overseas.
“There are different circumstances, and the whole Hubei Province is now still in a very critical stage of dealing with this epidemic,” she said last week. “All the public transport has been stopped and it would be very difficult to arrange local transport and so on. But we are not giving up at all.”
The government also said that it needed to make sure there were enough berths at the city’s quarantine sites — a sensitive subject in Hong Kong. Hong Kong residents who were on the contaminated Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan were expected to take up much of the currently available space.
Of the 352 Hong Kong residents who had been on the ship, more than 200 returned to the city last week and were under quarantine. Another 68 Hong Kong passengers were among the 634 confirmed cases on the ship, and were being treated in Japan.
Hong Kong has 79 confirmed cases of coronavirus infections, including three people who were passengers on the Diamond Princess, officials said on Monday. Two people in Hong Kong have died of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
After protests and a strike by medical workers, Hong Kong closed several of its border crossings with mainland China. It now requires travelers from the mainland to undergo a 14-day quarantine, which has drastically cut arrivals.
Mr. To said that most of the Hong Kong residents in Hubei who he had spoken with were visiting their relatives and in-laws during the Lunar New Year. Most wanted to be repatriated as soon as possible, he said, except for rare cases including a Hong Kong man who felt safer in a small village of 1,000 people that had cut off contact with the outside world.
The most urgent case he dealt with involved a man who needed his daily medications after undergoing angioplasty, he added. Following prescription rules, the Hong Kong Department of Health had initially declined to send him his medication for the first few weeks. The authorities inside Hubei had told him to try to get his prescriptions locally — an impossible task in the locked-down region, Mr. To said. The Hong Kong Health Department eventually dispatched the drugs to him.
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