Time to consider post-pandemic use of quarantine facilities

Quite a number of mobile cabin hospitals and community isolation facilities have been built by the government with the help of the central government during the fifth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As the outbreak gradually subsides, the issue of how to make the best use of such precious facilities has emerged as a matter that should be dealt with imminently.

Many Hong Kong people have to face rather tough housing problems. The Task Force for the Study on Tenancy Control of Subdivided Units under the Transport and Housing Bureau issued a report last year. 

According to the report, the number of people living in subdivided units in Hong Kong was estimated to be about 230,000, with the median per capita floor area of accommodation at only 6.6 square meters. 

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Residents of subdivided units are low-income individuals or families who have to pay steep rents for a living environment that can hardly be classified as desirable. When 230,000 people have to tolerate such terrible living conditions day in and day out, it is a matter of sheer absurdity to leave existing resources idle.

That said, though, we must not simply move as many people as possible into the newly built mobile cabin hospitals and community isolation facilities. The matter is not to be settled in a way as straightforward as that. 

A sixth wave of the pandemic is always a real possibility, so the occupation of the facilities has to be handled in a flexible manner. Taking all factors into consideration, the current mobile cabin hospitals and community isolation facilities should be divided into three categories.

First of all, 50 percent of the facilities should be turned into some sort of interim housing that would be provided to subdivided-units tenants who have been allocated public housing or whose applications for it are going to be granted in the coming six months. 

These people would be invited to live in the facilities while they are waiting to move into public housing. They would be asked to pay only a nominal fee while living in this interim housing, and the fee would be way lower than the rent they need to pay for their subdivided units. 

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Most important of all, these people would stay in the facilities in an “assembly line” mode, in which they would evacuate immediately when they receive notification to move into public housing. 

As they would not stay on a more or less “permanent” basis, the facilities could go back to function as mobile cabin hospitals and community isolation facilities for confirmed cases of infection in a very short period of time if a new wave of the pandemic emerges.

Second, 10 percent of the facilities could be designated as a more-permanent type of interim housing for those who face serious housing difficulties. 

They include the disabled, chronically ill, homeless, and those families whose breadwinners have lost their jobs during the pandemic and so find it hard to come up with the rent for their subdivided units. People in this category would be invited to stay in the facilities until they receive public housing.

Lastly, the remaining 40 percent of the facilities could be put aside for the time being for any future new outbreak or health crisis. If the likelihood of a sixth-wave outbreak dwindles, the facilities in this segment could be turned into the first and second categories mentioned above in order to take in more residents. 

After all, the guiding principle is very clear: The government should spare no efforts to try to improve the living conditions of those who now have to stay in subdivided units.

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Nobody is going to argue against the claim and fact that living in subdivided units amounts to overcrowding. What naturally follow an overcrowded living environment are decreases in the quality of sanitation and living conditions in general. 

It is there where problems start to arise as such conditions heighten the rate of diseases transmission. There have been countless cases showing that overcrowded cities or densely populated areas either became breeding grounds for infectious diseases or facilitated their transmission. 

That is particularly true in the cases of viruses and bacteria. Overcrowded living conditions also favor virus or bacteria hosts such as rats, and a quick cycling between people and rats and other hosts can lead to catastrophic health disasters.

So, to a large extent, the subdivided-units problem and the possible outbreak of a sixth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic are like two sides of the same coin. They are far more interrelated than most people realize. 

If the subdivided-units problem is allowed to drag on, it could by itself become a possible factor to trigger a sixth wave. 

On the contrary, moving residents from subdivided units to the newly built mobile cabin hospitals and community isolation facilities could play an effective role in preventing a reoccurrence of the pandemic in Hong Kong.

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To countries and regions, housing is a kind of highly valuable social resource, and it is definitely the case for a place like Hong Kong, where finding somewhere to live can be so expensive. 

The housing problem in Hong Kong is so serious that some scholars are labeling it as a crisis rather than merely a problem. 

Hong Kong holds the notorious record of being the world’s least-affordable city to live, where the price of property has gone out of reach for a good portion of the city’s residents, especially among the younger generation. So turning to subdivided units has become the only viable option for many people.

Look, a living area of merely 6.6 square meters per person is at the lower end on the scale of having a decent and respectable living environment. Commanding a living space of 6.6 square meters cannot be categorized as having a good life. 

So if the government moves quickly to solve the problem of subdivided units, the efforts will be warmly and sincerely welcomed by the 230,000 residents concerned.

The author, a radiologist, is a co-founder of the Hong Kong Coalition and a council member of the Chinese Young Entrepreneurs Association.