The coronavirus health crisis that has gripped the whole world appeared like a deja vu for Hong Kong. Seventeen years ago, the dreaded Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) made a significant impact both in the lives of Hong Kong people and the local economy.
SARS infected 1,755 people in the city, 299 of whom died. Globally, a cumulative total of 8,422 cases and 916 deaths were recorded. But in 2020, Hong Kong has again faced a familiar, invisible foe — only on a more global scale than that of SARS.
The virus eventually got its formal name as COVID-19, and the outbreak upgraded from an epidemic to a global pandemic in February. Countries adopted different measures to stem the transmission of the disease that has no vaccine as of writing, causing a severe impact on human activity and economic performance. But Hong Kong has been through similar battles before.
Even before SARS, the 1968 flu pandemic first broke out in Hong Kong before similar outbreaks were recorded in Vietnam and Singapore. The H3N2 influenza strain further spread worldwide the following year, and experts estimated one million people died after the flu reappeared a few years later.
In 1997, the H5N1 avian influenza virus caused a deadly disease that killed 6 of 18 known human cases in Hong Kong. The illness, though, mainly affected poultry and resulted in a mass culling of live chicken sold in Hong Kong markets.
Hong Kong is at a disadvantage for such outbreaks.
High population density
Hong Kong is a densely populated city with 6,690 people per square kilometer on average. For a higher perspective, the Kwun Tong district is the most dense, with 57,250 people per square kilometer. Close contact between people is inevitable. On a typical day, locals and tourists are often seen forming a beeline in a bus stop, ATM, supermarket cashier, restaurant or elevator ride. So if social distancing is tough to enforce unless authorities resort to draconian measures.
Proximity to mainland China
Four of the top seven busiest land border crossings in the world are between Hong Kong and mainland China, exceeding 220 million crossings in 2017. Lo Wu, Shenzhen Bay, and Lok Ma Chau serves as Hong Kong’s main entry point to travelers from the mainland. With certain viruses tracing back in China as origin, Hong Kong is often in a precarious situation. The H5N1 avian influenza virus was first detected in China’s Guangdong Province, according to virologist Robert G. Webster. Chinese scientists traced the SARS virus through the intermediary of civets to cave-dwelling horseshoe bats in China. The COVID-19 virus was first identified in December 2019 in Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province.
How Hong Kong managed to overcome such challenges is something the world has to take notice and emulate.
1. People wear face masks
A general population that’s used to wearing face masks may paint an eerie picture to those unfamiliar with such a scene in public. Face masks help prevent the spread of airborne droplets both from and to those who wear them. Before the pandemic broke out, it’s not unusual to find a few people in a big crowd wearing them. While citizens of other countries scrambled and fought mainly for their share of toilet rolls, Hong Kong people also ensured they have a supply of face masks, even though they were also not opposed to the toilet paper addiction.
The adoption of face masks is probably not the only reason why local cases have been minimal, but it certainly helped.
Masks have been a controversial accessory even before cases of COVID-19 broke out. Amid anti-government protests in 2019 that helped tip the local economy towards recession, the government enacted the law to forbid the unlawful wearing of face masks. Under the anti-mask law, it was illegal to wear a mask at both lawful and illicit assemblies, and offenders could be sentenced to one year in jail and a fine of HK$25,000. Since coronavirus was declared a global pandemic, such law may be regarded as pointless as the government pivots toward encouraging the public to wear masks for their health.
2. General regard for sanitation
Office buildings, supermarkets and small shops often have hand sanitizing stations customarily found only in hospitals or airport terminals in other places. Handrails and doors of publicly accessible facilities like staircases and MTR carriages are often cleaned. Sometimes lifts also have that reassuring notices that indicate they are being sanitized every four hours or so.
In buses or any confined spaces, a sneeze or cough from a pedestrian could trigger social distancing from strangers nearby, long before the term became a by-word during this era. Some people might call them paranoid or crazy, but they’ll probably fire back, saying that it’s better to look paranoid and maintain good health.
3. Shutdown of schools
Schools can easily be a ground zero for infections, and tracing infected cases and their contacts from such premises can become a very challenging task. So Hong Kong decided just to shut down educational institutions indefinitely and avoid the headache of a potential explosion of cases stemming from crowded classrooms or school activities.
4. Shutdown of social activities
The idea of social distancing sounds like a weird dystopian society only found in novels. But it’s now a reality and, let’s face it, becoming a new normal. Hong Kong’s fast-food restaurants are often characterized as cramped and crowded. But with measures in place, specific tables are taped as off-limits to ensure the distance between patrons are maintained. Soon gyms, karaoke lounges, night clubs, and practically every location that encourages socializing have been ordered closed as well.
5. People are given a chance to work from home
Office workers were ordered to do their jobs remotely, if possible. This reduced foot traffic in the streets and minimize contact with potential carriers, many of whom don’t manifest symptoms of COVID-19. Hong Kong’s reliable broadband infrastructure enabled seamless remote work and communication with colleagues, partners, and clients.
6. Restrict entry of non-residents
Non-residents were barred from entering Hong Kong, greatly reducing the risk of imported cases. Although it paralyzed virtually Hong Kong’s tourism and transport industries, preventing entry of foreigners into Hong Kong also prevented the number of instances from spiraling out of control. Recently, as restrictions eased down, the number of new cases accelerated again, with many of them traced to recent arrivals from overseas.
As you’d see on the list, they are not being done reactively by Hong Kong to address the current health crisis. Some of them are ongoing things that people are used to practicing. They aren’t new, and many countries are also practicing the same approach. The key, though, is how religiously people abide by them. For Hong Kong people, lessons of the past are being applied, and they see some benefits.