Opinion

A view on COVID-19 from Hong Kong


As the global response to COVID-19 ramps up, the Asia Media Centre takes a look at Kiwis on the ground in Asia and how they're dealing with it. Here's Francine Chen, based in Hong Kong.

Living in Hong Kong during this time of crisis is sobering.

As soon as it was apparent around the New Year that the epidemic was fast escalating, virtually the entire city started putting on protective face masks and boosting hygiene measures.

Stocks ran out fast and when they were replenished, they vanished just as quickly, with Watsons' website in February almost crashing after a queue of 1.3 million users tried to get their hands on a box from the popular health care and beauty chain store.

Signs reminding people to wash their hands and observe good hygiene went up, and those feeling sick were urged to self-isolate or seek medical attention.

IMG 20200316 135204123 Original2Hand sanitiser and tissue is offered in a taxi, whose driver is wearing a mask. Photo: Francine Chen/Supplied

The smell of disinfectant trails you wherever you go.

High-traffic areas such as train stations and shopping malls – which were already regularly sanitised daily, pandemic or not – began ramping up these cleaning measures to over a dozen times a day, especially for high-touch surfaces like escalator handrails and lift buttons.

Even the lobby area and lift at my apartment complex are cleaned every two hours. Bottles of hand sanitiser are available in prominent areas in many locations, including in taxis and at your neighbourhood fruit store around the corner. 

Some people have linked the preparedness seen in Hong Kongers' response during this pandemic to what they describe as PTSD from the 2003 Sars epidemic, which infected more than 8,000 people, mostly around this region, and killed nearly 300 Hongkongers.

When asked in a recent poll though about how the authorities had fared in addressing the crisis, many residents rated the community's response over that of the government, whom they blamed for the scarcity of surgical masks and personal protective equipment for both ordinary residents and health workers.

 

Nevertheless, Hong Kong's number of coronavirus infections has been relatively stable – at least compared with what we're seeing out of Europe and North America right now.

That is not to say it's remotely out of the woods. On Sunday, the city's confirmed infections rose to 890 with 28 new cases, including a woman whose six-week-old baby recently became Hong Kong's youngest patient after he was cuddled by an infected person.

The government is currently mulling a lockdown amid an impending "third wave" of infections from returning residents. If enforced, it would be a stricter step than its previous measures, such as school closures and the limiting of public gatherings to groups of four.

My workplace had a confirmed coronavirus case in mid-March, and the moment the staff member notified the management of their initial positive test, the company on the same day announced that the office would shut for at least two weeks and undergo a deep cleaning.

Many people in the same department voluntarily went to get themselves checked out and while they tested negative, they remained quarantined at a government facility just in case. 

In Hong Kong, as in many parts of the world, businesses are reeling from the economic shock of the pandemic.

Cinemas and gyms have been ordered shut, restaurants are only allowed to operate at half capacity, and the collapse of tourism is having a ripple effect through the city's economy.

kevin bosc dgmCZCw01vs unsplash 1Cathay Pacific severely reduced the number of flights it offered going into April and May. Photo: Photo by Kevin Bosc on Unsplash

Flag carrier Cathay Pacific has slashed its flights by 96 per cent in April and May, with continued reductions inevitable, and many MNCs and big brand names are making an exit, including Prada, which will pull out its flagship store at Russell St – the world's most expensive retail strip – once its lease runs out.

Meanwhile, even as Hong Kong battles the onslaught of the coronavirus outbreak, the public anger witnessed by global media last year over the anti-government movement has not abated.

A group of Hong Kongers on March 31 put the new four-person limit to the test when they gathered at a train station to leave floral tributes to casualties of the protests.

Many left after laying flowers, but some who stayed to observe the event were shooed away by police, who reminded people that social-distancing rules were in effect and that they were also committing unlawful assembly.

A total of 54 people, including a 12-year-old child, were arrested that day, for offences including illegal assembly, public disorder, possession of instrument fit for unlawful purpose, and theft. No one was punished for breaking social-distancing rules.

- Asia Media Centre