Covid-19: Staying home is not just common sense but a duty

March 30, 2020 16:53
All citizens have a role to play in fighting the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Reuters

The Covid-19 outbreak is among the most challenging and calamitous crises to have struck our city in recent years – and, for a city like Hong Kong, this is saying quite something. Despite the best efforts of our civil society and administration, the number of cases has recently spiked significantly, as a result of both returnees from overseas and sporadic community transmission.

As someone who has returned from the United Kingdom and self-isolated for 14 days (prior to the mandatory quarantine period kicking off), I’d suggest that policing our own health practices (what Foucault aptly considers, perhaps, to be living under a biopolitical Panopticon), staying home, adopting social distancing, and practicing heightened hygiene are not just common sense in terms of stifling the outbreak, but our moral duty.

And yes – this applies to each and every one of us: including the youths who think that they won’t be infected or infectious (you’d be unmistakably mistaken), those who think that sneaking out for a quick wonton noodle is unlikely to pose a threat to public health (you’re also mistaken), and those who seem to think the coronavirus is like the flu. To the latter group, much as your equivalents in Britain and the United States, I don’t think you could reasonably say this in light of the severity of the pandemic. With over 700,000 cases as of the time of writing, this outbreak is at least a hundred times more severe than the SARS epidemic – to the extent such cardinal comparisons are possible.

Let’s get one thing straight. There is no way of knowing – given the limited number of tests and strained resources available – if we are infected. Even those who test negative may have fallen victim to false negatives, or simply have yet to develop sufficient viral load to be adequately detected: this does not imply, however, that they are non-contagious or non-afflicted by the disease.

Wearing masks and washing our hands are necessary, but by no means good enough. Every surface you handle, every person you end up inadvertently in close proximity to, every conversation that ends up lasting longer than it should – these are precisely the critical junctures when transmission occurs. You do not want to inflict pneumonia or critical illness upon your loved ones – why does this logic not apply to others’ loved ones, including those vulnerable individuals who are immunosuppressed, the elderly, or particularly susceptible to the onslaught of the virus?

Staying home is also the prudential option – invisible carriers, coupled with the tenacity of the virus, render public spaces deeply dangerous. There is no guarantee that you wouldn’t catch the virus from taking public transportation; so where possible, avoid traveling on transport to minimize the risk of exposing yourselves and your family to the illness.

Make no mistake: the government certainly ought to step up the speed of its responses and preventative measures (some say it may well be too late, but late is better than never), but it behooves us to ensure that protocols and regulations are properly adhered to. Criticizing the government for its tardy responses is one thing; flagrant defiance of the well-established practices that we, as a city, have upheld for the past three months – now that clearly could do us no good.

We should never forget or neglect the harrowing scenes from Wuhan and Italy in the past, from Spain and the US at present, and – indubitably, as the pandemic rages on – from many other countries to come. These are chilling reminders of what happens when an already over-loaded and under-funded healthcare system (some would question if there even is one in the US) is confronted by a bug that is destructive beyond its lethality – particularly in its demandingness and risks posed to medical personnel.

Our doctors and nurses have fought tooth and nail as our city’s last line of defense. We owe it to them – and generations of medical staff past, present, and future – to not prodigiously squander their efforts; to not wantonly treat them as disposable machines whom we can rely upon to secure our health. Most importantly, by keeping ourselves and our contacts healthy, we could free up medical and public health resources for those who are truly most in need – the caged home tenants who have no feasible ways to practice social distancing; the frontline workers putting themselves before us as de facto human shields, and the elderly in the elderly homes, for whom isolation and sanitary maintenance may not be an option.

Ventilators being given to those only with the highest chances of survival; overcrowded wards and patients overflowing onto aisles and corridors, thereby cross-infecting more people; storing bodies in ice rinks because the crematorium has exceeded capacity… These are scenes that we have witnessed abroad, and clearly could just as well happen to us here. Hong Kong deserves better, and we must do better. To those who frequent Lan Kwai Fong in search of “fun time”, to those who have escaped household quarantine orders in search of exotic Japanese cuisine, and to those who think frivolous frolicking is an appropriate response to this pandemic, I urge you to rethink your choices.

For your choices not only have a bearing on the healthcare system and those who depend on it, but also the millions of citizens residing in Hong Kong – we’re all in this together.

All of this is not to say that only individual citizens bear the responsibilities of upholding social distancing as a communal practice. Individuals’ choices are necessarily constrained, shaped, and engineered by their circumstances and social structures. Take a look at London – it is not that manual laborers are deliberately taking the Tube every day to infect each other; it is also not the case that market vendors and kebab vans are open because they are selfish profiteers.

These breaches of protocol and government requirements reflect far more systemic, underlying problems – that zero-hour contract workers cannot afford to not work; that those living in precarious circumstances cannot opt out of often coercively imposed employment requirements; that downtrodden folks, who are conveniently neglected by the government until it becomes politically expedient to instrumentalize them for facetious point-scoring, often don’t get to choose if, where, and how they work.

Similarly, therefore, it is high time that corporations engage in a genuine rethinking of their employment practices. Working from home amid a dangerous pandemic should be a basic right, not a privilege. Receiving some (even if not all) pay independent of working hours should be a right, not privilege. Children getting the education they deserve – with respect, attention, and care – should be a right, not privilege. If the government wants its citizens to stay at home, it ought to work with civil society to make lives easier for those who comply – otherwise, the incentives simply would not align, and any and all policies advanced would be futilely relegated to the growing pile of “passed, but not enforced” policies in Hong Kong.

Staying home shouldn’t be a choice – it should be a duty. The government has not gone far enough, and it may well be too late when it comes to such a realization. Yet independent of government action, we – as a collective, as a community – should and can do better.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review