It’s a cool Friday night in March on Peel Street. Compared to Lan Kwai Fong’s tourist traps, this part of Soho is less rowdy, the more adult choice for a night out after work.
The street is packed with so many people on this particular evening that it feels like Hong Kong island’s entire expatriate population is here, and then some. Sitting inside one of the restaurants, we hear an explosion of sound from a large group making their way down the street, singing and cheering, as if more than a billion people around the world weren’t on lockdown.
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By then it had been more than seven weeks since news of the coronavirus first broke out, and the number of confirmed cases in the city was at around 150—a stark contrast to the thousands being reported in other countries. After a full month’s head start on social distancing and working from home, and the apparent relative success of these practices, residents were eager to return to some semblance of normal life. Hence the nonchalance of standing on a crowded street, exposed glasses of wine and beer in hand, face masks defiantly off. It was a statement that, against all odds, we made it out.
THE NOVEL coronavirus, yet to be named Covid-19, seeped into consciousness urgently in Hong Kong. The world regarded this news in early January with detached curiosity, something that was probably unlikely to escape Greater China (and later, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea). The World Health Organization (WHO) said it did not yet constitute a global pandemic, and this was accurate at the time.
Meanwhile, life was about to change for us. Across the border, China was recording more cases—and deaths—every day. Given the hundreds of thousands of daily commuters who live and work between Hong Kong and mainland cities such as Shenzhen and Guangzhou, locals were uneasy about the ultra-convenient link to China, ground zero of this mysterious virus being traced to bats.
Hong Kong reported its first two cases on January 22. On January 26, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam announced the highest state of emergency and that government workers were to work from home. The private sector was “strongly encouraged” to install the same measures. Special arrangements such as remote work or scheduled shifts were put into place overnight in order to reduce the risk of spreading the virus to the rest of the community.
Classes were suspended until further notice. Healthcare workers demanded that Hong Kong seal all its borders from the mainland, which had very challenging practical and political implications. Through it all, local businesses such as restaurants, bars, and gyms were allowed to operate as normal.
On the same day, a friend messaged on our group chat: “I heard groceries are running out of stuff. It feels weird.”
Another friend replied: “I’m on the MTR and someone is wearing a face mask and goggles. Can you get infected through your eyes?!” (You can.)
First it was the masks. Months-long protests had made them a usual sight, even though the government had banned its use back in October. But one day I stepped out to find lines snaking outside pharmacies and supermarkets. This crossed my mind first: Was there a post-Chinese New Year promotion I didn’t know about? Then I saw hastily scrawled signs outside Watsons and Mannings stores: ‘Sorry, masks and alcohol are out of stock!’
I remember thinking this was strange. Why would you need to write that down? Later, I discovered the volume of people hoarding stocks made this necessary. Panic-buying had ensued: alcohol, hand sanitizers, and disinfectants were suddenly every supermarket’s most prized inventory; dried goods flew off the shelves following a rumor that supply from China was under threat. It was difficult to find toilet paper and napkins in stores for at least a week. I never thought I would feel in danger in Hong Kong, least of all for carrying a pack of tissue—but for one paranoid moment, I did.
In the elevator, many of my neighbors refused to press the buttons with their fingers, instead using a wipe, their elbow, or a jacket sleeve. I found this amusing at first, but over time I appreciated their vigilance. At the barre studio I went to, temperatures were taken before entering class, a practice that gradually became the norm everywhere from office buildings and restaurants to most shops in the following weeks. I sprayed Dettol routinely throughout the day, inside my apartment and in the hallway 30 minutes before I planned to run grocery errands, grab takeaway, or work out, the only three things I allowed myself to do outside.
The word was that the virus was affecting older patients with underlying medical conditions. Those who were young and reasonably healthy could expect to recover without complications. But this is true of every other virus, and news that some infected cases were exhibiting no symptoms encouraged distrust. At the peak of the city’s anxiety, people eyed one another with suspicion if you failed to wear a mask; in public, you felt the need to avoid coughing or sniffling. “Please wear a mask before entry,” is a common request posted outside retail stores. “If you have a cough or a cold, please wear a mask. Don’t spread germs,” is intoned, over and over, morning and night, in an automated message in the subway.
COVID-19 was old news, until it wasn’t. Photos of that evening on Peel Street were met with backlash in the following days, when Hong Kong began to document a spike in cases. Locals expressed displeasure at the carelessness portrayed, inflamed further by some expats’ stubborn refusal to wear masks.
During this second wave, new cases were mostly imported from residents and students who had come back from places like the US, the UK, and other European countries, but it was a troubling escalation nonetheless.
By the end of March, the number of confirmed cases had more than tripled in the span of two weeks. Our cautious optimism turned to pure caution.
While businesses have not been limited to essential services, as they have in many other countries, in late March Hong Kong enforced the following measures: no public gatherings of more than four people; fitness studios, bars and pubs, cinemas, and other entertainment venues were ordered to close until the end of April; restaurants were to keep tables at least 1.5 meters apart, effectively trimming the number of diners down to about half the usual. These recent regulations have reshaped the city and will have longer-term impact—especially on its once-robust hospitality industry, already being battered by exorbitant rents.
But for the most part, life goes on. We assumed this new normal with an obedience not seen since the government protests began in June last year. Establishments that have had to shutter temporarily are fighting for their existence with creative ways to serve patrons in the interim—gyms and fitness studios are livestreaming workouts on Zoom; among local bars, for instance, Asia’s Best Bar in 2019, The Old Man, has shifted to pre-batched cocktails for delivery or pick-up.
Efficient measures such as contact tracing, strict 14-day quarantines, and dedicated task forces have accelerated containment, but ultimately, disciplined residents have made it possible for Hong Kong to emerge from crisis with a bit of hope.
I recently read a tweet from academic Rowena Azada-Palacios that Germany’s institutional memory centers on the horrors of World War 2; the Philippines’ is Martial Law; and Hong Kong’s is the SARS epidemic of 2003. These are the memories that are passed from one generation to the next and ingrained in the collective psyche, informing culture and ideally even public policies. Hongkongers, as one colleague observed, have learned their lesson, and it’s proven to be the key differentiator in this city’s battle with corona. Moving forward, perhaps learning from history is what will make a difference for all of us.
Photos courtesy of the author except banner and last three photos.