By Jessie Pang and Sarah Wu
HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong reported its first coronavirus death and Macau ordered casinos to shut for two weeks as the Chinese territories battled to halt the spread of an epidemic that has claimed more than 420 lives in mainland China.
Hong Kong’s first fatality from the newly identified virus was a 39-year-old man who suffered from an underlying illness and had visited China’s Wuhan city – the epicenter of the outbreak – in January, hospital staff said.
It was the second coronavirus death outside mainland China after a 44-year-old Chinese man died in the Philippines, fueling calls for authorities in the Asian financial hub to seal off the border with the mainland.
Hundreds of medical workers went on strike for a second day calling on embattled leader Carrie Lam to reverse a decision to leave three checkpoints open and instead shut the border completely.
“As Carrie Lam refused to close the border, more (deaths) might come … We are not threatening the government, we just want to prevent the outbreak,” said Cheng, a 26-year-old nurse attending the strike.
Holding red and white placards reading “Save HK now”, masked medical workers took to the streets in Kowloon and more were expected to join the strike later on Tuesday, organizers said.
The city’s hospital authority said some emergency services had been “severely” affected by the strike. The strikes have added pressure on the city’s beleaguered public hospital network which was already struggling to cope with staff shortages.
The latest coronavirus epidemic has rekindled memories in Hong Kong of the 2003 Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), another coronavirus that emerged from mainland China and killed nearly 300 people in the city.
The former British colony has had 15 confirmed cases of the newly discovered coronavirus, including one that was transmitted locally.
The Hong Kong resident who died on Tuesday had been kept in an isolation ward after the coronavirus was confirmed last week. His 72-year-old mother, who contracted the virus locally and had no travel history, was staying at home during the incubation period, authorities said.
The United States, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand and Vietnam are among countries that have denied entry to foreign nationals who have recently been in China.
But Lam has rejected calls to seal the entire border, saying it would be inappropriate, impractical and discriminatory.
On Monday, authorities announced the closure of four more border crossings with mainland China, leaving open the international airport, a bridge connecting the city to Macau and the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai as well as Shenzhen Bay Port.
The World Health Organization has declared the latest coronavirus outbreak a global health emergency but says travel restrictions are unnecessary to contain the epidemic.
In Macau, Chief Executive Ho Iat Seng said he had asked all casino operations in the world’s biggest gambling hub to halt operations for two weeks.
The former Portuguese colony reported 10 cases of the virus and restricted movement in and out of the territory. Residents were told to wear masks when traveling around the city and to stay at home as much as possible.
No immediate details were given about when the casino suspension would begin. Macau’s casinos are usually packed with Chinese high-rollers and are the life-blood of the territory’s economy.
(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Twinnie Siu, Sarah Wu and Felix Tam; Writing by Farah Master; Editing by Michael Perry and Stephen Coates)