TESS HOGUE. Living in Hong Kong through SARS and Covid 19.

Feb 27, 2020

I have a rotten cold. My eyes are watering, my head is pounding and I can’t stop sneezing. Normally I would get plenty of rest and fluids and just wait it out.

This time it’s different. This is Hong Kong in the middle of the Covid 19 threat. The first order then is to minimize going outside and spreading my germs. Hong Kongers have largely been keeping indoors as much as possible only going out to shop for necessities and to go to work; this is tough for a city that works hard but also plays hard. However, the memory of SARS is still fresh despite it being 17 years ago.

Before SARS it was common to see people spitting on the streets but that practice went out after SARS. Since that time, it is a common practice to wear a surgical mask if you are sick; a courtesy to your community in order to keep its common spaces clean. It is a city that is still traumatized by the collective memory of the daily tallies of the dead, the mass panic and heartbreaking stories of hospitalized patients dying alone in their rooms.

It is best then to keep indoors with this cold. Keeping indoors however, has hit businesses hard. A city that enjoys shopping and street haggling, now are full of empty shops and market places are largely avoided. Restaurants and bars are largely empty, only some foolish expats unmasked and enjoying drinks and music can occasionally be seen there. Schools and universities are closed and teachers and civil servants are working from home. Hong Kong is a barely functioning city with an almost empty mass transit, postal packages delayed and banks and other businesses working on a skeleton staff.

For years I’ve counted myself as lucky, living in one of the most exciting areas of Hong Kong. Centrally located in one of the busiest shopping and nightlife areas, Causeway Bay is a crowded tourist destination. However, the past year has also seen it as the centre of the protests; vandalized and teargassed every weekend, the numbers of tourists had been dwindling affecting the local economy but now the tourists have completely gone.

Venturing outside, I have to remind myself that I also live in one of the most densely populated parts of the world. Normally, a Nordic tourist perhaps, would be able to look over a moving wave of people, including hordes of mainland Chinese tourists, all shopping in the most exclusive fashion houses of the world, but now the streets are largely empty and those who are out there are only there on necessity. To go out therefore, sneezing and coughing, even if masked seems at the least, impolitely antisocial.

In addition, to the grim reality of the economic downturn, is the fact that Covid-19 couldn’t have come at a worse time. Unlike SARS, when there was a sense of community and many acts of heroism, Covid – 19 is greeted by a divided society. The larger political protests for democracy and a voice have opened up local factions and paranoia. Rumours that all the hard-to-find masks have been taken for use by the police force only reinforces the social divisions of Hong Kong. Anti-Chinese sentiments were running high but now there’s a venom in laying blame for all of Hong Kong’s misfortunes.

Carrie Lam’s government lost all credibility during the protests and now there is a sense that they have handled this crisis badly. Medical staff during SARS were frontline martyrs in battling the disease. This time around, they were out protesting over the length of time it took to shut the borders to China. Protesters have been out to most of the designated quarantined areas with the main objection that Hong Kong should not take in mainland Chinese.

While I am confident that I will recover from this cold, Hong Kongers have little hope in a quick recovery. There is a sense that along with Hong Kong’s political identity crisis, there is a growing lack of trust in its financial and political institutions. The government is dysfunctional, it continues to rule but with little connection to the people.

Hong Kong has a unique identity but its greatest fear is to lose this identity and therefore lose its brand as an international financial powerhouse. Increasingly, the city feels less international and more like a hotbed of local resentments. While it’s a resilient city with a reputation for bouncing back, something has changed, something has broken. Maybe worse than a virus is a broken heart.

(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)


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