HONG KONG: The first half of March saw Hong Kong people’s attempt in bringing the city’s life back to normal amid the COVID-19 pandemic. There are more people out in the streets, mostly wearing face masks.
Many companies and the government have reduced the work-from-home arrangements and are getting people back to the office. Queues at certain restaurants are spotted during lunch hour. Toilet rolls, rice, hand sanitiser and face masks are back in stock.
Some public facilities have reopened. There have been even a few art openings this week, including a new art gallery by former French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and his son Arthur.
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As many places around the world are just starting to feel the pain of COVID-19, which is hitting Europe and the United States hard, Hong Kong seems to have “flattened the curve” since the outbreak began in January.
Wearing face-masks, keeping strict personal hygiene and social distancing, partially closing borders, and performing testing and contact tracing appear to be working.
The coronavirus-induced panic buying and dysfunction of the city, described as “symptoms of a failed state” in a Bloomberg opinion piece widely circulated in February, are no longer uniquely Hong Kong. Even the bar district of Lan Kwai Fong has become crowded again.
But has Hong Kong succeeded in the fight against the novel coronavirus? Well, not quite.
NOT OUT OF THE WOODS YET
It is indeed true that people seem to be relieved when the number of confirmed cases has been kept at a relatively low level, compared to many other places in the world with similar population sizes.
As of Mar 20, Switzerland has over 3,800 cases and 30 deaths, and New York City has over 3,600 cases and 20 deaths. Both cities have a population of around 8.6 million people.
Hong Kong has so far seen 208 cases and 4 deaths, out of a population of 7.4 million people.
But the territory saw an exponential increase in terms of percentage in the later half of this week – the number of cases in Hong Kong has gone up by 25 per cent over Wednesday and Thursday.
As the situation deteriorates around the world, it appears that Hong Kong is expecting a second wave of outbreak in no time, as forewarned by the vocal Hong Kong University microbiologist Dr Ho Pak-leung.
The new cases were brought to Hong Kong by those who have returned from overseas, and people who have ignored expert advice on social distancing. Health officials have described the nightlife hub of Lan Kwai Fong as a “hotspot” for spreading coronavirus.
The trend is worrying, as this might jeopardise the collective effort of the majority of Hong Kong people who have been fighting the virus since January.
GOOD HABITS STEADY HONG KONG
For the disciplined Hong Konger, a trip getting out of the apartment has never been so meticulous.
Face mask, hand sanitiser, and a small bottle of rubbing alcohol spray are must-have items in the bag. Fancy dresses have been left untouched in the closet as waterproof clothing and a cap to cover the head and hair are in fashion.
Upon returning from outside, shoes must be off, and they, together with the waterproof outerwear, must be cleaned with disinfectant spray, diluted bleach or rubbing alcohol. Hands must be washed.
Clothes go straight to the washing machine, immediately followed by a shower from head to toe. And don’t forget to clean the phone, keys and door handle.
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Such is the new routine that my friends and I have adopted when the novel coronavirus originated from Wuhan, China, began to hit Hong Kong towards late January. We have been practising social distancing diligently and have avoided eating out.
It might sound like we were overreacting initially, but with the painful lessons from SARS – which from 2002 to 2003 killed 299 people, including many medical workers – imprinted in our memories, and months of Hong Kong protests that have sent people’s trust in the government to a historical low, we know that no one is more reliable than ourselves.
SPIRIT OF RESISTANCE AND RESILIENCE
It is not an exaggeration to say that Hong Kong people’s spirit of resistance and resilience inspired by the ongoing pro-democracy protests has protected them from the deadly virus.
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The government maintained the stance of no mask necessary at the end of January. In early February, when the city was facing a severe mask shortage, chief executive Carrie Lam told the media she ordered government officials not to wear masks.
“I actually told them they cannot wear them. And if they are [already] wearing them, they have to take them off,” she was quoted saying in the media, citing World Health Organization advice. Her comrade, labour and welfare minister Law Chi-kwong, also said that he did not need to wear a mask to go to work.
But people were well aware of the asymptomatic nature of the virus long before it was declared a pandemic, and the public’s distrust in the Hong Kong government and Beijing, which covered up the outbreak in Wuhan at the beginning, encouraged them to take advice from leading medical experts.
Hong Kongers learnt how to wear face masks via social media to prevent germs from spreading, and had access to continuously updated medical research.
A medical workers’ unprecedented strike in late January and early February to demand complete closure of the border to mainland China also sent an alarming signal to the public, as medical workers made it clear that the influx of virus carriers and patients from the north could threaten the public healthcare system in Hong Kong.
The warnings might have worried people and sent them into panic buying, emptying the shelves of supermarkets for a while and generating long queues to buy face masks, but the strong community response has worked.
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This, followed by closure of schools, public facilities, and borders, as well as implementing home-office arrangements, has allowed Hong Kong to hold off the exponential increase in the number of cases for a long while.
But whether this can be sustained depends on the entire population. Fighting a pandemic is never a one-person job, but a collective effort. Many people in Hong Kong have learnt their lessons.
Wear a mask, wash your hands, and avoid unnecessary social contact and travelling. By taking care of yourself, you are also protecting others from getting infected.
People might have found a way to live with the virus for the time being, but the fight is still on, and it’s too soon to celebrate victory.
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Vivienne Chow is a Hong Kong-based journalist and critic specialising in arts, culture and cultural politics. This commentary first appeared on the Lowy Institute’s blog, The Interpreter.