Hong Kong: Living with coronavirus

You can never be over-prepared for a pandemic, writes Steve Ka Lok Wong

The World Today
2 minute READ

Steve Ka Lok Wong

External Consultant, International Labour Organization

Hong Kong is about 1000km from the Chinese city of Wuhan, the centre of the outbreak of the new coronavirus, but by high-speed rail the journey can take only four and a half hours. So it was not surprising that the Hong Kong government was quick to issue an early warning and insist that people arriving in Hong Kong declare their travel history. The first local case of the virus was confirmed on February 4.

Despite its links to Wuhan, Hong Kong has been largely spared this pandemic. Although it is still too early to tell exactly why, the territory had learned a painful lesson from the 2003 SARS outbreak. Pandemic measures - from general awareness to careful policy implementation - were nothing new to Hong Kong. When SARS hit, schools were closed, as the city entered a soft lockdown that was followed by an economic recession. I remember taking my temperature every morning, staying at home most of the time and wearing a mask in public. Once COVID-19 appeared in the news, there was feeling of ‘Oh my God, here it goes again…’ among friends and family.

On January 25, I flew into Hong Kong from Europe. For the European leg of the trip, passengers were quite relaxed and, afraid of raising unnecessary concerns, I did not reach for the face mask I had in my pocket.

Things changed quickly after a stopover when the stress-free European travellers were replaced by concerned Hong Kong citizens wearing face masks. The middle-aged couple who sat next to me and repeatedly asked whether I had a mask were a vivid reminder that many in Hong Kong were well prepared. Before stepping into my sister’s apartment, I was given a disinfectant spray and alcohol wipes for anything my one-year-old niece could touch. When it came to Chinese New Year, all family dinners were cancelled and people were cautious about leaving their homes.

As January went by, mask prices skyrocketed, education was put on hold and civil servants started working from home, but the government was unwilling to close the border with China. Fearing a repetition of the government’s mishandling of SARS, many healthcare workers went on strike for first time in Hong Kong history, appealing for border closures before it was too late to prevent a mass community outbreak.

Meanwhile, doctors and nurses in hospitals resurrected the ‘unlucky draw’, a method used in 2003 to pick the first group to work in the separation wards. Not long after the strike, several border crossings were closed and all people with a history of travel to China were put under a mandatory 14-day quarantine.

The lessons of 2003, combined with a general distrust of the government, meant that by February many people were almost over-prepared. Thanks to this, combined with the travel restrictions enforced by neighbouring countries, the spread of COVID-19 was halted. All in all, Hong Kong has managed well in this pandemic. As of July 1, with only seven fatalities and 1,204 cases, business is back to normal.