By Ewan Jones
Hong Kong is not unfamiliar with coronavirus outbreaks, having been one of the hardest-hit places during the 2003 outbreak of SARS. The city’s recent memory of the devastating effects of such a virus may have played a part in Hong Kong’s successful response to the COVID-19 outbreak: 1,110 infections and only four deaths at the writing of this article.
Early in 2020, Hong Kong had one of the highest numbers of COVID-19 infections, most likely due to its proximity to mainland China and its status as an international trading hub. As the number of new infections rose, the government was quick to implement measures that other countries were reluctant to accept, such as school closures, intense contact-tracing and quarantine measures, border restrictions, and a large emphasis on work-from-home initiatives. My brother, who is currently in year 11, has only returned to school recently, on a trial-basis, after six weeks of online teaching. These measures, which seemed extreme at the time, were largely successful in slowing down the rate of infection.
However, Hong Kong was never under a true ‘lockdown’. We were always able to leave our houses whenever we wished and never saw closures of restaurants, although liquor licenses for bars were revoked for a few weeks (they’re back now!) and nightclubs and karaoke bars are yet to re-open.
At the end of March, as the COVID-19 crisis worsened worldwide, many international students rushed home to Hong Kong. At this time, Hong Kong saw the number of imported cases quickly rise, threatening the relative success of the previous months’ efforts. In response, the government implemented a quarantine measure that may appear draconian when viewed from overseas: ‘quarantine bracelets’. The bracelets connect to an app on your phone, which allows the government to track your location at all times, ensuring that you remain in your house for the duration of the 2-week quarantine period upon entering Hong Kong.
My sister and I arrived back home around the same time. We were visited by the police on our second day in quarantine, as my sister had been unable to successfully set up the app, so I can tell you these measures were taken seriously. In addition, around a week into my quarantine period, I received a call from the government telling me that I was to be taken to a ‘quarantine centre’ an hour away, because the person sitting in front of me on the plane had confirmed positive for COVID-19. As you can imagine, I was shocked, but quickly packed my bags and prepared for the dreaded ‘quarantine bus’ to show up at my door. However, nothing came.
My family’s theory is that the government was inundated by cases and weren’t able to spare the forces to come and collect someone halfway through their quarantine, but I guess I’ll never know.
Restrictions for incoming travellers have become even more strict in the past couple of months: mandatory testing at a public stadium for everyone entering Hong Kong, and new quarantine bands that resemble those worn during house-arrest, with in-built GPS trackers to further prevent removal of the band.
Although the fast implementation of aggressive contact tracing and quarantine measures certainly played a large role in Hong Kong’s COVID-19 success, there is another major contributor to reducing the impact of the virus: Hong Kong’s citizens themselves.
Like many other places in Southeast Asia (such as Japan and South Korea), surgical masks have been a common facet of society for as long as anyone can remember. I certainly never found them odd, being given masks whenever I visited the doctor and seeing masses of people wearing them wherever I went in public. These masks are not chiefly worn due to the increased air pollution in these areas (although some do wear them for that reason), but instead as a courtesy by the sick to others: preventing infection by limiting the spread of droplets from sneezing or coughing.
This knowledge and extreme familiarity with the purpose and experience of wearing facemasks could be seen almost instantaneously once word of an unknown respiratory disease reached Hong Kong: citizens began wearing masks more than ever, even without governmental instruction. In fact, a recent survey found that 98% of people are still wearing masks when they venture outside. There is, however, a darker side to this expectation for the populous to wear masks. Many videos have been circulated online of people without masks being shouted at and told to leave shops and restaurants, events that I have seen happen firsthand.
Now that imported cases have decreased and Hong Kong is having stretches of weeks without seeing any COVID-19 infections, life has returned to almost-normal, with the ever-prevalent masks and noticeable efforts to clean public transport (often once every two hours) the only telltale signs that there still remains a global pandemic raging just outside our border.
The four-person limit on public gatherings has been extended to eight, including at restaurants and bars, where plastic barriers separating tables are commonplace. Many pop-up hand washing/sanitising stations have appeared in malls and public areas, reminding the public to prioritise personal hygiene. Cinemas reopened a couple of weeks ago, albeit with regulations common in many public facilities, such as 50% capacity, bans on eating and drinking, and mandatory mask-wearing at all times. However, this is a small price to pay for a return to normal life – even if the only films showing are mainly re-runs of previous releases, such as the Hunger Games and Dark Knight films!
Finally, and of much more importance, the people of Hong Kong are returning to protests now that the threat of COVID-19 has decreased. These are primarily in opposition to the controversial ‘National Security law’, which threatens to open the floodgates for removing Hong Kong’s independence once-and-for-all. Large public gatherings are banned, yet the people still protest: the cancelled 4th June vigil for the victims of the Tiananmen massacre was attended by thousands in Victoria Park, and a number of protests have occurred just this week to mark the one-year anniversary of these critical political actions.
Images: Ewan Jones