Salute! To the unsung heroes

September 11, 2023 09:09
Photo: AFP

Last Friday saw Hong Kong hit by one of the worst, if not downright the worst, rainstorms it has endured in recorded history. 158.1mm of rain was recorded at the Observatory headquarters between 11pm and midnight, and the Black Rainstorm warning was hoisted for over 15 hours.

Whilst some have touted this rainstorm to be a ‘one-in-500-years’ rainstorm, with the deleterious effects of climate change setting in, and with the incidence of extreme and catastrophic weather increasing as a result, we must brace for a new normal where such rainstorms occur every decade, if not more frequently. The non-linear increase in frequency and intensity of precipitation is testament to the urgency on our part in devising a coherent and holistic crisis response framework, as well as the need for decision-makers to cultivate comprehensive foresight on how to manage natural disasters, such as the one that took to Hong Kong last Friday.

Much ink has been spilled on how it behooves the SAR government and relevant agencies to be more prepared for the prospective contingencies and emergencies, and more transparent concerning their response and protocol in face of extreme weather conditions. I am no policy expert on this front, but would instead like to take the opportunity to thank - and invite us all to thank - the unsung heroes, many amongst whom have been placed under unreasonably treacherous and arduous circumstances, in order to keep this city functioning.

Hats off to the frontline repairmen and maintenance workers of MTR, who toiled away for hours on end to repair the collapsed wirelines and malfunctioning railway grid/signal system in the aftermath of the flashfloods in a number of railway stations. Whilst their valour and audacity must be of course applauded, one can’t help but wonder - was it truly necessary, if at all effective, to deploy workers to a site where fresh floodwater was pouring in still, amidst the torrential downpour? The circumstances in which these workers operated were not only treacherous - they were downright hazardous, considering the debris in the deluge and the possibility of electrocution due to loose live wires. What’s needed here isn’t just more empathy or thoughts and prayers, but a systemic review and prospective overhaul that can put an end to the unnecessarily incurred risks taken on by these maintenance workers.

Hats off to the bold firefighters, ambulance officers, and other medical workers who worked tirelessly, hours on end, to keep us safe and sound. Many amongst them went above and beyond their remit, in undertaking challenging tasks ranging from rescuing folks stranded amidst surging and rough seas, flotsam, and at risk of drowning, to breaking into and retrieving folks stuck in their cars (the much-memed image of the ecstatic lady rescued by a firefighter has - unironically - been a source of mirth for many during the storm, though one must inevitably wonder, why the fuss?). There is much to appreciate in their rigour, diligence, and perseverance amidst the incredibly trying times that we were in.

Finally, hats off to those amongst the Legislative and District Councillors in the city, who did their jobs. We may think that it is part and parcel, and most reasonable, to expect that those elected - directly or otherwise - to fend for our public interests, should be willing to not just speak up, but also stand up through action, for our public interests. Yet of course, expectations and reality often do not match. Yet those councillors who stood up and were counted - volunteering to check in on their district’s residents, communicating with the public on behalf of the government, and relaying urgent requests and concerns to the relevant governmental organs, deserve our thanks - for their willingness to do their job properly.

We should also salute the many other heroes who shall remain nameless - from the local villagers who took to themselves to assist with the evacuation of low-lying areas to the teachers who sought to check in with their students in the morning, from paramedics who sought to provide medical advice and support to those injured during the floods, to civil servants who walked the extra mile. There is much in Hong Kong that can be improved - including our response to natural disasters and extreme weather; yet there is also much that is fundamentally loveable and applaudable.

The unsung heroes deserve our round of applause - but perhaps not just in a literal sense. It is high time that we took to reforming and bolstering the health and safety regulations, legal and substantive protections, and welfare and benefits for many of our workers in essential industries. Such reforms are not only necessary from the vantage point of recognising the value and utility in the work they do, but also in incentivising more folks to take on these jobs going forward.

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Assistant Professor, HKU