Doctors, nurses, health care workers, first aid volunteers and others gathered at Chater Garden on Saturday (Oct 26) for the officially approved rally under the theme, “respect human rights, keep police powers in check”.
Participants were united in condemning the force, accusing police of inflicting “severe injuries” on protesters, but pledged to maintain their professionalism and treat all patients equally, regardless of background and political persuasions.
This was the 21st consecutive weekend of demonstrations first sparked by the government’s now-withdrawn extradition bill, which would have allowed the transfers of criminal suspects to mainland China.
Dr Arisina Ma Chung-yee, of the Hong Kong Public Doctors’ Association urged her fellow medical professionals to remain impartial in their work, saying: “You can still criticize police while remaining professional. If someone smokes in my ward, I will reprimand him for doing so, but I will still treat him to the best of my ability at the end of the day.”
Several protesters complained about receiving delayed medical attention after being arrested. They said police have also entered clinical areas and even women-only patient rooms. They said that kind of act was an invasion of patient privacy and has also led to a breakdown in trust in the public health care system.
Opposition lawmaker Joseph Lee Kok-long, representing the health services constituency and a registered nurse himself, accused police of creating an “unsafe environment” in public hospitals where patients dared not come forward for treatment.
“Officers have gone into hospitals, invaded patients’ privacy and made arrests in wards, as well as arrested first-aiders and therefore prevented injured people on the ground from getting the immediate medical attention they need,” Lee said.
On the contrary, hundreds of doctors side with police over Hong Kong protests before, exposing deep divisions in medical profession.
“Our law enforcers, police, have been demonized. Some citizens carry an unnecessary sense of enmity to the government, police and public organizations. They have even destroyed and obstructed public transport,” the letter of these doctors read.
The letter made five pleas, including an appeal not to glorify or encourage violent rampage and calling on health care staff to uphold their duties and treat patients fairly regardless of their political views.
Dr Arisina Ma Chung-yee said she agreed that those protesters who had broken the law should be arrested, but medical staff were concerned with how they were arrested and how police exercised their duties.
Underground Clinic To The Rescue
At the rally, an onlooker at a protest told the audience that he was too afraid to seek treatment at a public hospital after his right index finger was broken by a projectile fired by police on October 20.
“We were getting dinner at Mong Kok on Sunday. Police were firing tear gas at the time. I had no protective gear, so I ran,” he said, claiming that he was hit while fleeing.
Fearing his case might be reported to police, the man said, he had his injury attended to at an “underground clinic”.
Hong Kong underground clinic became popular among the people with injuries who didn’t want to go to hospitals.
The patients came from any part of communities and aged anywhere between 15 and 40 years old, but most of them were frontline protesters.
In any given week, the medics received 30 to 50 patients, with numbers could rise to nearly 100. They communicated via an anonymous Telegram channel.
After an initial discussion over the messaging app, they are invited to attend a “mobile clinic,” operating out of borrowed cars which the volunteers alternate between to avoid number plate detection. The reason they don’t use a constant location is that they are afraid their identity or the identity of the patient will not be kept secret.
To protect patients’ privacy, the underground clinic has only ten core members. The Telegram account is used for a network of specialists, made up of mutual friends and close contacts.
The underground clinic was the brainchild of Hui, a former frontline first-aider who was repeatedly approached by protesters with similar problems.
“I knew how to answer simple questions, but later on the questions got more complicated and I had to ask my friends for advice,” she said.
The most common injuries included irritation from tear gas manifesting in eye inflammation, persistent diarrhoea and respiratory symptoms such as coughs. Others involved bruises, sprains, pneumonitis with patients coughing up blood after CS gas exposure, and blisters from water cannon jets laced with chemical irritants.
Hui and her friend Mo are medics who extend their duty of care to those outside of the hospital in response to unprecedented circumstances. The two women and the other qualified members are all driven by a sense of shared social responsibility so strong that they have spent around HK$30,000 of their own money to keep the project running.
Hui said that the clinic has turned down donation offers from a potential overseas patron for fear it could be interpreted as foreign interference.
“We want to avoid these rumours so we tend to find doctors who are kind enough to see the patients for free,” she added. “For example, if you do a suture, an outside doctor might charge HK$2,000. But some of them will occasionally do it for free for us.”
They felt frustrations with accusations from so-called ‘blue ribbon’ groups that claimed the clinic has leeched off of public hospital supplies.
“But all of these items we don’t get from the hospitals, we purchase ourselves,” Hui said.
Meanwhile, the first-aid volunteers, usually wearing reflective vests and white helmets with DIY (Do It Yourself) red crosses taped on, can be spotted at almost every protest in Hong Kong, helping anyone injured.
Like other parts of Hong Kong’s leaderless democracy movement, these teams are self-organized through social media by doctors, nurses, medical students and other first-aid providers.
People taking part in the protests are worried about the consequences of having their identities exposed, except 39 years-old Julius. He is an engineer with a certificate in providing first aid. He’s been out on the streets helping protesters since the first major protests in June.
Most of the volunteers had never met each other before the protests. They organized the first-aid network through online chat groups. Julius said every time he worked with different people.
They have no leader, no set schedule and work with little notice. The only rules are “safety first” and “don’t leave anyone alone.”
During protests, the teams form groups of four to six people. They patrol near the front lines between police and protesters.
Julius and his teammate Sonny had tasks in July’s rally in Yuen Long. The protest was banned by the police, but tens of thousands of people showed up anyway.
The first aid volunteers met up at a train station at 3 pm. They put on helmets, tested walkie-talkies and divided up syringes, bandages and saline solution – equipment they bought themselves or were donated.
Sonny, a 25-year-old pharmacist, was responsible for carrying the more severely injured from the front lines to safer places.
As night fell, police fired more tear gas to disperse the crowd. After helping dozens of protesters, the first-aid team decided to retreat to a nearby train station. The protests ended only after police stormed into the train station.
Until now, the conflict in Hong Kong shows no sign of winding down.