The response of Hong Kong to Convid-19 is a prurient tale and its moral is that if the West learn from their story, then together future governments and citizens will be able to avert further national pandemic disasters.
There is a common narrative about Hong Kongers. Once upon a time, towards the end of December, there was news of a mysterious virus, most likely a coronavirus spreading in Wuhan, China. Immediately, Hong Kong paid attention, namely because of the memory of the previous outbreak of SARS, in which close to 300 people died, and because of its geographical location.
The pragmatic and resilient Hong Kongers sprang into action, the masks came out and by the end of January, it was clear that schools and universities were going to be closed down, civil servants told to work from home, as well as anyone else who could do the same. It was these quick-thinking prompt actions that saved Hong Kong from suffering the same fate as Wuhan. While the story has not ended and as yet there is no happy ever after ending, this story is a prurient tale and its moral is that if you, particularly the West, learn from our story, then you too will be able to avert a national pandemic disaster.
However, as in most narratives, the real story is more complicated and the real lesson may be that it is still too early to know what this experience has taught us. Hong Kong’s story began a long time before December, as tensions between the HK government and the people were already at a peak before the virus hit the city. Six months of ongoing protests on democratic reform and representation had already left an economy in disarray and a population exhausted from angry mobs and dealing with the falling numbers of tourists and business.
When news of the virus came out, there was an immediate reaction of distrust of the Chinese figures as well as both the handling of the crisis by both the Chinese and Hong Kong government. In this narrative, Hong Kongers were more likely to give the credit to their own self- reliance than on the actions of any powers above. An example was the criticism of the government’s initial reluctance to close the Chinese borders which seemingly gave way to the all-out street protests of doctors and nurses.
The embattled chief executive, Carrie Lam, however, had learned to be more responsive to its non- voting electorate. Like most governments around the world a large stimulus package that ultimately satisfies no one was unveiled. A sweetener of HKD$10,000 to every citizen over the age of 18 and some propping up of business was promised, although the handouts are not likely to be paid out until later this year.
The government has continued to monitor the situation and has imposed increasing restrictions which include no gatherings of more than four people and the latest one, in which bars will be closed down for a period of two weeks. These measures were implemented as the numbers continued to rise in Hong Kong mainly due to returning residents and some local transmission.
In comparison to other hotspots in the world, the numbers are modest, around 40 -50 per day and still the death toll remains at four. Little credit, however, is given to a government which so badly let down its people in 2019 and therefore whatever measures they implement, are little valued. Instead, Hong Kongers are keen to take the credit and minimize any government action. Instead, the numbers were low because according to locals, they took the initiative themselves to stay at home and to wear masks despite at one stage Carrie Lam stating that masks should be kept for frontline medical workers. This edict was largely ignored by the 99 per cent of mask wearers in Hong Kong.
What this illustrates, is that the blame game and the infighting factional feuds exacerbated by the protests are now entrenched in the Hong Kong culture. Finger-pointing is common and the latest targets are the ‘white’ Hong Kong ex-pat community and some minorities who may not practise ‘good hygiene’. There is genuine puzzlement of locals on the question of why ex-pats don’t wear masks. The unmasked hordes who hang out at Lan Kwai Fong, a big nightclub hotspot, have been blamed for irresponsible behaviour that has led to the continued spread of the virus. While the number of infected party-goers could be counted on one hand, to some extent it is true that this behaviour poses a significant risk. Nevertheless, Hong Kongers could also be criticized in overemphasizing the efficiency of masks.
Experts warn of improper use of masks in spreading the virus and in the present environment where people have lost jobs and have been suffering hardships for eight months, masks are unhealthily reused. Furthermore, in the outer New Territories, crowds are starting to return to the shopping malls and the MTR train services. There are also some anecdotal stories of the elderly travelling on the MTR who are coughing and then take off their masks to sneeze and put them back on again.
In the new era of coronavirus panic, it is easier to play the blame game than to deal with the complex problems of a city that was already down when the virus hit, and that continues to suffer hardships that could last a very long time. Unlike the previous SARS outbreak, the city went back to normal in a matter of months. In addition, despite the stay at home orders, the government is taking the opportunity to make arrests and round up suspects from last year’s protests. These actions do nothing to mend an already divided city.
Experts predict that while numbers of infections may rise and fall, it will be a long time before this plague will be eradicated. In the meantime, there is no happy ending, not even in the local massage places. Hong Kong’s survival will depend on the ordinary citizen’s willingness to hunker down but as the economic situation becomes direr we may see a desperate situation where people will risk their health and others to go out and earn a living. In Hong Kong as in the rest of the world, the situation is still evolving but hopefully, it will be the self- reliant spirit of the city that takes it out to better times ahead.
(Tess Hogue is a university lecturer, working and living in Hong Kong. She follows Hong Kong politics and society avidly having lived in the city over 20 years)