HK one of the safest places on the planet amid Covid-19 outbreak

March 16, 2020 12:51
Passengers wear protective masks aboard an MTR train. Hong Kong people are more prepared to handle the coronavirus outbreak in view of their experience with the SARS epidemic in 2003. Photo: Reuters

Members entering the Pure Yoga studio at the back of the Peninsula Hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui have their temperature taken first at the entrance of the building and a second time when they enter the studio. Many carry disinfectant to clean the mats and blocks they use. After each class, staff enter and clean everything again.

It is thanks to acts like this that Pure Yoga has remained open through the coronavirus outbreak and held its classes across the city for hundreds of participants every day.

Such wise behavior of individuals – their awareness and self-discipline – is the main reason why Hong Kong is now one of the safest places on the planet. As of Sunday, it had four deaths and 148 confirmed cases of the disease.

By comparison, as of Sunday, there were 8,162 confirmed cases and 72 deaths in South Korea, while there were 24,747 cases and 1,809 deaths in Italy, and 4,511 cases and 91 deaths in France.

The streets of Rome, the "Eternal City", are empty and all shops are closed except food outlets and pharmacies. Business is at a standstill; everyone is confined to their homes. In Hong Kong, buses and subway are running and shops and businesses are open.

“I praise the attitude and behavior of ordinary people,” said Mary Leung, manager of a library in Causeway Bay. “After the experience of SARS, they know what to do – cleaning themselves and their environment, limiting social contact and wearing masks. They are the heroes of this epidemic, not the government.

“Another factor is good advice from doctors and other specialists in the newspapers, television and social media,” she said. “Also up-to-date information, especially on how and from whom people contracted the virus. This has been very important to allow us to track the disease.”

The SARS epidemic of 2002/2003 killed about 300 people in Hong Kong.

“As soon as we heard of the virus in the mainland, we began to prepare,” said taxi driver Wong Sik-man. “We knew what to do. The most important measure should have been to close the border with the mainland. That was the main source of infection.

“The government was too slow. But the quarantine measures it took meant that few mainlanders came. I have felt safer since then. I take precautions. But I will go out for meals with family and friends, provided the numbers are small,” he said. “The worst is behind us.”

Since Feb. 8, the government has imposed mandatory quarantine on all visitors from the mainland.

Taiwan has been another success story of this pandemic. As of Sunday, it had recorded only one death and 59 confirmed cases. This is due to the use of technology, a central command center, a single-payer health care system, mandatory quarantine and quick decision-making.

This is despite the fact that Beijing has excluded Taiwan from the World Health Organization (WHO), including emergency meetings on the coronavirus.

Like Hong Kong, Taiwan learned bitter lessons from SARS, which killed dozens of people on the island after spreading from South China, and is skeptical about data from the mainland. So it too was prepared this time around.

That is the big difference with Iran and countries in Europe. For them, the outbreak in China was something in a distant country. The government in Beijing was implementing drastic measures to control it. So they did not consider it an imminent threat and did not prepare.

The other heroes in Hong Kong are the front-line medical staff; they are the most exposed to the disease and have been working long and exhausting hours.

According to mainland state media, as of March 9, four doctors in Wuhan hospitals have died of the virus, with more than 3,000 medical staff infected; a further four doctors are in serious condition. Doctors in Wuhan are under the additional pressure of not being allowed to speak in public of their experiences, despite the death of one of them, Li Wenliang, the whistleblower, last month.

By comparison, the public in Hong Kong has the blessing of hearing the wisdom and experience of its doctors and medical specialists and following the latest developments of the disease.

Hong Kong and Taiwan also have the advantage of being easy to isolate. Hong Kong has a limited number of border points, which can be closed or monitored. Taiwan is an island.

In Europe, it is the opposite – 26 states belong to the Schengen Area; they abolished passports and border and custom controls at their common frontiers. This allowed the virus to circulate easily all over Europe. The epidemic has persuaded many EU countries to reinstate these controls, to prevent and monitor people arriving from outside. They are taking measures unseen in Europe since World War Two.

In my local park this morning, there were people jogging, doing tai chi, listening to Cantonese Opera and discussing their lunch menus. Except for the face masks, it was almost like a normal day.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.