Covid jitters squeeze fruit sellers

Top News | Moon Lam, Sophie Hui and Jane Cheung 26 Jan 2021

Residents living near Yau Ma Tei fruit market are bracing for a lockdown amid a Covid-19 upsurge in the area.

And vendors at the SAR's biggest fruit market are also importing less produce to reduce potential losses.

Worries are rife the area will be targeted in the next lockdown after more than 30 buildings in the vicinity have seen Covid-19 cases.

A resident who lives on Pitt Street said he has prepared food supplies including rice, vegetables and meat that can last for two days so he can still cook meals at home in case of a lockdown.

Another resident said while she understood why authorities do not want to warn residents of a lockdown in advance, she has stocked up with canned food and instant noodles. "Many vendors were worried after hearing this about a possible lockdown of the fruit market, so we're more prudent when stocking up," a fruit market vendors named Yau said.

Cheung Chi-cheung, vice-president of the Kowloon Fruit and Vegetable Merchants Association, wanted government officials to give the industry warning before a lockdown because most vendors and workers in the market do not live nearby.

"The fruit market is an area of shops, not a residential area," he said. "The place lacks hygiene facilities and rest areas, so what can we do during a lockdown?"

He also said vendors will lose a lot if the fruit market is closed for 48 hours, but they are not slashing prices yet.

Another vendor, Cheung Wai-oi, said operators should be allowed to move in and out of the market after they get tested, even if the government decided to lock down the adjacent area.

"I will not do anything right now as I don't think the government will lock this area for a long time.," she said. "We also have ways to keep fruit fresh."

The flurry came after the SAR's first Covid-19 lockdown in Jordan came to an end at around 3am yesterday.

Thirteen people showed up positive for the virus among 7,000 residents tested in two days.

Another 473 households did not answer their doors.

Government adviser David Hui Shu-cheong had said if the number of cases in the fruit market's area continued to go up, authorities should consider a lockdown.

Infectious disease expert Leung Chi-chiu suggested authorities extend mandatory testing to the fruit market rather than imposing a lockdown as a lot of stall owners, workers and visitors show up at the market every day. A lockdown would not be able to contain everyone who had been there.

Leung said people escaping on the eve of the Jordan lockdown has affected the effectiveness of the measure.

He added the operation came with a low-cost efficiency - deploying 3,000 officers while ending with a positive rate of 0.17 percent - a similar proportion of cases as normal mandatory tests.

"Only a two-day operation may not be able to stop the virus from spreading as there is an incubation period," he said. "What if a lot of people develop symptoms in two weeks and spread the virus to others?"

But government adviser Yuen Kwok-yung from the University of Hong Kong backed lockdown measures and said health officials were walking a tightrope.

"If you impose a lockdown when there are not as many cases people will say it's unnecessary and disruptive to residents," he said. "But if you wait until there are some cases people will say you're acting too late."

He said it is difficult to determine whether the positive rate at 0.17 percent is high or low. "Compared to the universal test [last September] with a positive rate of 0.004 percent, it's higher. But compared to the 0.4 percent and 0.8 percent in symptomatic people and those attending clinics it's lower.

"But I shall emphasize that most of the residents tested in the lockdown were asymptomatic."

Business owners in Jordan said the area remained quiet even after reopening yesterday. A fixed-pitch hawker owner named Ma said she could earn a daily income of thousands of dollars before the lockdown but only earned several hundred yesterday.

Yau Tsim Mong district councilor Li Owan estimated each hawker along Reclamation Street lost HK$30,000 to HK$60,000 during the two-day closure.

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