August 8, 2022

By Hongkonger J
AAP contributing columnist
HONG KONG (April 27, 2020) — Hong Kong is one of the most populated cities in the world, and a travel hub between China and the rest of the world. 
Due to our proximity and relationship with China (one hour away), we must be one of the earliest places on earth to raise a red flag when we learnt of an abnormal virus outbreak near the so called “seafood market” in Wuhan in mid-January. Weeks later, we made headline news when CNN reported that we were all wearing surgical masks and stocking up on toilet paper. Have Hongkongers turned nutty?

COVID-19 prevention messages are placed at busy community centers in Hong Kong. (Photo by Hongkonger J)

Well, I guess the figures speak for itself.  As at April 24, it is the second day this week that the city recorded zero case of Wuhan Virus infection. The number of cases has stayed single-digit for 13 days in a row, and the death toll remains at four out of 1,036 positive cases. There is no outbreak among high risk groups such as the 400,000 foreign domestic helpers, elderly homes or medical staff. The 7 million nutty bunch must have done something right. 

LESSON OF SARS 2003

Hong Kong has learnt a hard lesson from the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) tragedy, a coronavirus originated from the Guangdong province in 2003.  Seventeen years later, when many countries turned a blind eye on the Wuhan outbreak, the SARS nightmare reminded Hongkongers that one virus carrier alone can lead to an uncontrollable community outbreak and bring down the entire healthcare system. It is this “better safe than sorry” attitude that alerts both the general public and the healthcare sector to gear up all preventive measures at a fairly early stage.

When Hongkongers learned of the Wuhan outbreak in January 2020, we preferred to act cautiously and trust only half of what the Chinese government reported about the virus. Nor did we trust the Hong Kong government much. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, at the start of the outbreak, declined to close the Chinese borders (due to political concerns from China) and disclaimed the need to wear masks as the World Health Organization, a puppet body led in the nose by Communist China, said masks are only for the sick. In one infamous press conference that will live in the memory of Hongkongers forever, Lam, who appeared at the conference without wearing a mask, ordered Hong Kong government officials not to wear masks except in limited circumstances.

But Hongkongers knew better and did not follow the lead of their embattled chief executive. By early February, we understood that self-help is the key to saving lives. 

A health worker displays a wrist band showing the latest status of COVID-19 testing in Hong Kong. (Photo by Hongkonger J)

Mask-wearing is very culturally acceptable in Hong Kong since the SARS outbreak. Approximately 99% of the public voluntarily chose to wear masks when our government said it was not necessary. Since early February, all masks in Hong Kong were sold out. People with overseas friends, family with Filipino or Indonesian domestic helpers, all reached out to the world to source for masks. Local companies immediately looked into the feasibility to manufacture surgical masks in Hong Kong. Housewives shared videos on how to make cloth masks, where we stuffed kitchen paper in between the mask to use as filters.

HYGIENE AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL

The SARS routine returns – proper and frequent hand washing, sanitizing our shoes before we enter our apartments, a vinyl sheet covering the elevator buttons which is sanitized every hour or so, temperature checking before we are allowed to enter public buildings, carrying alcohol in our pockets, regularly pouring water into drain outlets….  all these small things add up. In fact, these precautions have been so effective that the city’s annual flu season has been dramatically reduced and shortened. To the western world, we look quirky and crazy. To Hongkongkers, going through these routines is common sense. 

(Oh, women have added one more routine to the list. We now cover the lid of the toilet bowl before flushing. Most men of course, complain about this. Good luck with your toothbrush, which is just inches away from the toilet!). 

On the side of public health, we are fortunate to have a couple of outspoken healthcare professionals who act as pandemic advisors to the government.  One of the most trust -worthy figures here is Dr YUEN Kwok Yung, a world- renowned microbiologist.  All of these advisors have front-line experience with SARS. They have all witnessed the hospital outbreak then, which killed many of their colleagues. Over- utilization of hospital beds and insufficient protective gears are universal problems during this difficult time. But compared to other places, I believe the healthcare staff in Hong Kong have a better grasp on triage strategies, the importance of setting up negative-pressures rooms for the infected patients and how to smartly utilize the limited supplies of protective gears. 

Few other things that Hong Kong is doing right:Very early on in the Wuhan outbreak, the government requested civil servants to work at home, setting the stage for the commercial sector to follow. Schools were also closed, hence greatly reducing the sardine-pack situation on our public transportation, which is used by over 90% of the population.

Testing, testing, testing. Dr YUEN again and again stands firm on this. Starting mid-March, all incomers to Hong Kong have to self-quarantine for 14 days, and those with symptoms have to be tested.   Since last week, all incomers from the airport, with or without symptoms, are required to be tested, wait a few hours at the airport for the result, before they can self-quarantined. These tests, of course, are free. 

A sign encourages Hong Kong residents to wear masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 (Photo by Hongkonger J)

• Wrist-band tracking the self-quarantined people. In February, we had to cope with a large number of Hong Kong residents returning from China. In mid-March, we had to handle the influx of students returning from the highly-infected UK, Europe and U.S. The government has come up with a wristband for them to wear. Volunteers (mostly retired civil servants) would call them regularly for video calls, and they have to activate the “share location”, a function available in What’s App and WeChat. For those who do not know how to use smart phones, healthcare staff will pay them a home visit. The wrist band is now in its 5th generation. The person simply scans the QR code on the band, and the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) will be alerted if they move away from the premises they claim they will quarantine in.   

• Contact tracing. Each identified carrier will be asked to describe one’s whereabouts in details, so that the CHP can immediately track down their “close contacts” and have them tested if necessary. Besides family members who live together, the relatively high-risk, “close contact” groups identified so far include a group of people who went to the same Buddhist temple, a “hotpot family gathering group,” a “Lan Kwai Fong band playing group,” etc. Because of this detailed tracing, there are only a few cases with untraceable origins. This tedious and painstaking measures are vital to minimize community outbreak. 

• Timely communications. Every day at 4:30 p.m., a spokesperson from the CHP and our Hong Kong Hospital Authority host a news conference and inform us on the latest infected figures and the situation in the public hospitals. We have websites and apps where we can check the names of buildings where the infected person resides. A good balance between privacy issues and public health, I believe.

• Social distancing. Unlike many other cities, Hong Kong has never been locked down.  High risk places such as cinemas, gyms are closed, and dining out is restricted to 4 people per table, to be placed 1.5 meters apart. Other than that, we can go out.  Many elderlies still go to their morning dim sum routine at their favorite restaurants, I still jog every day, and I just had my haircut a few days ago.  Housewives still go out to the wet market every day to buy fresh produce. When we go out, we diligently wear our masks and not gather. We finish what we need to do and go home. 

All in all, I applaud each and every citizen and every healthcare member in Hong Kong for a job well done. 

The commercial sector in Hong Kong has suffered much -first, from the political unrest since June 2019, then the US-China trade war, and now the pandemic. We are fortunate enough to be a relatively affluent city with low unemployment rates, but the economic recovery will be very, very long and painful.

While we are about to recover from the Wuhan Virus, Hongkongers face another ominous and lethal threat from Communist China. Realizing that the rest of the free world is pre-occupied with fighting the Wuhan Virus, Communist China has geared up its effort to tear down the one- country- two -system promise. In recent weeks, the Beijing-backed Hong Kong Government has clamped down on the pro-democracy camps, including arresting 15 pro-democracy leaders on April 17. To me, this political move is more fearful, toxic, and lasting than the virus. 

Hongkongers, add oil!

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