Thank the Hong Kong people

May 04, 2020 09:18
Photo: Reuters

“I have not been out of my house for a month. I do not dare. Young people around me do not respect the regulations and I could catch the virus from them. My daughter leaves a box of food twice a week outside the door. We talk but remain two metres apart.”

Mary Smith, 81, lives in her house in the central London district of Camden, where more than 560 people have died of Covid-19.

“We have no idea how long this will go on. I do not want to go to a hospital which is full of infection. I am in the age group that is most vulnerable. It is like World War Two.”

As of May 3, according to official figures, Britain had 28,131 deaths and 182,260 cases. It ranks fourth in the world in deaths, behind the United States, Spain and Italy. Among the dead are more 100 doctors, nurses and other health professionals. Many nursed the sick without protective equipment.

The Financial Times estimates the total number of dead directly or indirectly from coronavirus in the UK at about 47,000 as of April 28; the additional number are those passing away in care centres or in their own homes. In the week to April 17, 22,351 deaths were registered in England and Wales, more than any week for the previous 50 years.

In Hong Kong, on the other hand, only four people have died and there have been 1,040 cases. As from May 4, civil servants are going back to work and the city is gradually returning to normal.

Both places have world-class health systems, with public and private care, a well-educated population and many specialists in infectious diseases. So why this extraordinary gap between the two?

The biggest difference has been ordinary citizens. With their experience of SARS in 2002/2003, Hong Kong people moved at once to protect themselves with masks, hand-washing, availability of sanitary liquid everywhere and social distancing. They followed closely news of the disease from Wuhan and the rest of China – but, for the government and people of Britain, it was distant news unrelated to them.

Hong Kong people strongly supported the advice of medical and public health experts to close the border and impose strict quarantine on those coming from outside. After initial mis-steps, the Hong Kong government took the necessary measures.

The media has also played a key role, with detailed information on who is infected and their movements. This has enabled everyone to review where they went and who they saw, and react if necessary. Such individual trace tracking has been missing in the U.K.

“The UK response to the pandemic is a national scandal,” said Dr Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet, Britain’s top and one of the world’s most important medical journals. On January 24, his magazine first published clinical reports of a mysterious pneumonia from Wuhan.

“Lives could have been saved had we acted earlier,” he said. “If we had used February to scale up capacity for testing and contact tracing and begin surge capacity for intensive-care bed use, it’s absolutely clear we would have saved lives and the National Health Service (NHS).”

One doctor told him that war zones were better prepared than Britain. “The NHS was left playing catch-up, because the government either ignored or did not act on information in a timely manner,” Horton said. “We had the biggest science policy failure in a generation.”

In April the British media revealed that Prime Minister Boris Johnson missed five meetings of the Cobra emergency committee in January and February. He preferred to spend much of the latter part of February at his country house in Chevening, south of London, with his heavy pregnant girlfriend. He chaired his first Cobra meeting on the crisis on March 2.

Smith said she blamed both the government for its lack of preparation and also ordinary people, especially the young. “They did not take it seriously and thought it was an Asian disease. They thought that, if you wore a mask, that meant you were infected. So they did not want to wear one. They gathered at bars, parks and other public places when they should have stayed at home.

“The government was preoccupied with Brexit and leaving on January 31,” she said. “It was preparing for talks with the EU on a new trade deal. No-one in the government thought the virus would reach here. And it feared public anger if it imposed restrictive measures. That caused a significant delay in following the examples of Italy and Spain.”
Unlike residents of London or Manchester, we can share a latte with a friend in a coffee shop. As we savour the taste, we give thanks to the people of Hong Kong.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.