Holed Up At Home: Hong Kong in the Times of Coronavirus
“Personally, it’s been emotionally vexing to stay cooped up at home with two small kids.”
The Lunar New Year is the biggest party in Hong Kong or anywhere else with a Chinese diaspora. The city is washed in shades of red and gold, decked with lanterns, bustling with lion dances, drowning in the sounds of the gong and immersed in a cultural experience like none other throughout the year.
But 2020, the year of the Rat, was rather dismal. City-wide celebrations got scrapped. Instead of downing dim sums, people were scrambling to hoard face masks, cleaning supplies and hand sanitizers. Schools and universities got suspended and offices asked employees to work from home as the city grapples with a burgeoning health crisis
Eerie Déjà Vu For Hong Kong
Hong Kong, as I know it, has a suffocating obsession with floor cleaners and disinfectants.
One sneeze in the MTR (the local train system) and watch it get empty at lightning speed. A little cough and even the tiny tots obediently wear their face masks. Masks are de rigueur. A hug and handshake are culturally out of question; locals regard these as ‘nasty gweilo habits’. Office buildings and apartments boast of how many times a day they sanitize public surfaces like elevator buttons and walls, escalator handles, play areas, doorknobs and toilets. Kindergartens mandate a daily fever check.
This collective germaphobia wasn’t always ingrained in the local ethos. The 2002-03 outbreak of SARS, which killed 299 people in the city, wounded it forever.
While it’s easy to wipe away traces of germs every four hours, the memories of the past pandemic are harder to erase. Many feel the spread of COVID-19 brings back the unresolved trauma of SARS and the mistrust for the central government in Beijing.
People in this region took the lessons learnt during SARS to heart. The threat of a new outbreak is taken extremely seriously - both in its approach to disease management and maintaining personal hygiene. As mainland China fights the most critical epidemic in recent times, the vibe in Hong Kong is apprehensive.
People are determined to not make the SARS-era mistakes again and the government has taken robust measures to counter the novel virus.
Surgical masks, N-95s and the smell of bleach is now ubiquitous on trains and public spaces. Several restaurants, buildings and theatres have mandatory temperature checks and require masks for entrance. Movie halls are open but sell tickets in alternate rows to limit contact in the audience, cleaners sanitize the poles in public transport, swings and slides in playgrounds are also disinfected multiple times a day, and people take extra caution to washdown their drain pipes in condos with bleach. Schools and universities are shut till at least April 20th. Public libraries, sports facilities, theme parks like Disneyland and Ocean Park are shut indefinitely. Most public and private sector employees are working from home, except those in emergency services.
The measures might sound excessive or even disproportionate but nearly two months into the epidemic, with a proximity to mainland China and a highly porous border, yet somehow Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, has managed to flatten the disease curve.
The total coronavirus cases are restricted to 98, with two fatalities. Perhaps an astounding example of how social distancing and personal hygiene measures really work even against an infectious virus.
(Gweilo – A common Cantonese slang for Westerners and mostly used as an ethnic slur for all non-locals)
Hong Kong is No Wuhan But the City Is On the Edge
The shops are open. Cafes and pubs are running. Public transport is operational. But the eerie silence on the roads is deafening. Malls are quiet and the calm in the city that never sleeps is unsettling.
The scars of the SARS pandemic are still raw.
Unlike China, the confinement over here is self-induced. I know of a few public hospital doctors who slept in their tiny OPD cabins for more than a month early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, than go home or check into a hotel and spread the virus, in case they were silent carriers (asymptomatic).
Families would rather hunker in cramped apartments than venture out unnecessarily and increase their chances of catching the disease. Personally, it’s been emotionally vexing to stay cooped up at home with two small kids, working out of my living room, with the husband having turned the kid’s room into his home-office, constantly worrying about making the 6-year-old wrap up his online school learning tasks and dealing with the acute paucity of face masks in the whole city. Still, no matter how insane and mundane the whole stay-at-home situation becomes, we don’t march out more than two-three times a week and only go out to buy perishable groceries. Also, each time we leave the confines of our home, we waste a mask. It’s a hard choice!
The hunt for disinfectants, rice, noodles, toilet paper and surgical masks is ridiculous. Many pharmacies have people lining up at the crack of dawn for masks!
We add to cart whatever we can shop online, order from restaurants and eat it on the balcony - it feels a bit like outside. The bizarre thing - most delivery guys just drop your parcel at the door instead of making physical contact.
Life has been upended by this outbreak. Many are struggling to stay afloat in the face of shutdowns. We get overwhelmed and distressed by the sense of panic, but our situation is so much more comfortable than the millions stuck in Wuhan. At the time of such a sudden crisis, you realize the importance of simple, normal things. Any day I’d take the bustling Hong Kong vibe over the quiet, the bottlenecked streets over the absent jams, navigating the over-congested malls which have become so
walkable now and waking up at 6 am for sending my son to the school. If there’s a silver lining to this predicament, it’s the downtime with the family and cooking more at home. Not a bad move for the environment, eh?
(Nikita Mishra is an independent journalist with more than ten years of experience in medical reporting. Currently she lives and works out of Hong Kong and when not weaving words, she can be found obsessing over coffee, cakes and her adorable kids.)
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