A branch of Starbucks enforces social distancing among its customers by taping off tables and chairs in Hong Kong EPA/Jerome Favre

Opinion – The Hong Kong approach to containing Covid-19

From February to the present, Hong Kong’s approach to containing Covid-19 has been characterized by the incremental and enhanced measures adopted by the government, a sustained pattern of cluster cases, the highly professional medical and hospital staff, a highly vigilant community, and an increase in the number of infected cases involving returnees from other countries, especially the United Kingdom.
As early as January 8, the Center for Health Promotion in Hong Kong identified and added a mysterious and novel respiratory disease to the list of quarantine, followed by a requirement that visitors to hospitals were required to wear masks. After the Chinese President Xi Jinping made an announcement on the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan city on January 20, Hong Kong found two highly suspected cases of citizens returning to the city from Wuhan. On January 23, the government deployed the Lady MacLehose Holiday Village as a quarantine center. When more cases of coronavirus were confirmed, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on January 28 that the high-speed railway services would be suspended on January 30, together with the suspension of cross-border ferries. While cross-border flights with the mainland were reduced, the border checkpoints of Man Kam To and Sha Tau Kok would be closed.
Although some critics of the government said in late January that it acted slowly, the Hong Kong authorities have been consistently adopting an incremental approach in response to the rapidly changing circumstances.
Perhaps the six-month protests from June and December 2019 had an important unintended social consequence, namely deterring and frightening many mainland visitors from coming to Hong Kong. As such, late December and early January did not witness a large number of mainland tourists, including those from the Hubei province and Wuhan city. By the end of January, Hong Kong already imposed a partial lockdown, thereby reducing human interactions with the mainland.
In February, the number of suspected and confirmed cases of coronavirus gradually increased amid the complaints from many nurses that the government could have taken much tougher measures to close the border with mainland China. Moreover, critics of the government said that face masks were insufficient in the entire community.
In response, the government gradually closed more entry points from the mainland to Hong Kong. On February 3, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that Hong Kong would close more border crossings, leaving only the airport, Shenzhen Bay, and the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge open. The government said that the borders could not be completely sealed for the sake of allowing the entry and exit of Hong Kong residents from and to the mainland.
On the other hand, many non-governmental organizations and charity groups volunteered to distribute face masks to the poor, the needy and the elderly. Many ethnic minorities distributed face masks to the ordinary people on the streets. A very strong sense of belonging to Hong Kong could be seen in the territory, although the city was politically deeply divided in the latter half of 2019.
In early February, Hong Kong witnessed the first death from Covid-19. The entire month envisaged less than 100 cases until March 2, a date which signaled the beginning of a far more challenging period than ever before. More cases of cluster-type of infections emerged and more cases stemmed from places outside Hong Kong and mainland China. As such, on March 25, the government closed its border to non-residents who arrived from overseas countries and places. Transit through Hong Kong would no longer be allowed. Returning Hong Kong residents would have to be quarantined at either their homes or hotels for 14 days. Electronic tracking devices have been used to check whether these returnees violate the quarantine regulations. Stricter measures have been adopted for returnees from the United Kingdom, the United States and Europe, as they have been required to undergo the Covid-19 testing.
The Hong Kong approach is clearly characterized by incrementalism and step-by-step enhanced measures to contain the spread of Covid-19.
The emergence of cluster-type cases also prompted the government to take more stringent measures. A case involving a Buddhist temple in North Point infected 19 residents. A wedding banquet in Discovery Bay inflected 14 people, of whom at least four did not attend the banquet but were indirectly affected. A music band in a bar in Lan Kwei Fong saw a rapid infection of almost 73 people, including band members, service staff members, clients and other people directly or indirectly related to the bar infection. Another group of 9 people who went to a karaoke club were infected with the virus. Many other small clusters of infection emerged, including employees working in beauty parlors and visitors to fitness clubs. It seems many people were infected during their group tours to different parts of the world, including 8 confirmed cases of infection in a tour to India, 8 in a tour to Canada, and 10 in a tour to Egypt. A group of 13 relatives and friends attending a hot-pot dinner were all infected, sparking worries among the community about the highly contagious nature of Covid-19. Ten Hong Kong residents who were onboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship parked at Yokohama were also found to be infected with the virus. Even sports athletes were infected, affecting three members of a Hong Kong karate team and a soccer team’s assistant coach whose wife was an airline hostess travelling to the UK and other places. Three residents in the same building in Wan Chai were infected, sparking suspicion that a lift was the virus-carrier. A dog was also infected and died, while a cat was later found infected.
All of these clusters proved that Covid-19 is highly contagious, especially in an environment where people gather together. That was the reason why, on March 27, the Hong Kong government quickly banned gatherings of more than four people. On April 3, bars were required to close for 14 days to avoid possible cluster infections. Although critics said that this ban may be difficult to implement, the policy characterizes the incrementally enhanced measures adopted by the city to contain the spread of the virus.
Hong Kong is also punctuated by highly professional medical and hospital staff members, who are working diligently to cure and rescue those who are infected with the virus, and who risk sacrificing their lives to contain Covid-19. So far, the Hong Kong hospitals do not see a pitiful phenomenon similar to Wuhan, where some doctors and nurses were infected with the virus and passed away. Cross-infections among medical staff and patients must be avoided if all countries work diligently and successfully to contain the spread of this highly contagious and deadly virus.
Finally, although some Hong Kong people seem to ignore the ban on the gathering of four people, many of them have remained highly self-disciplined and vigilant. Most citizens wear masks to protect themselves and others, while private sector companies have been arranging rotational shifts to protect the health and well-being of their employees. Schools are closed until the time will be safe for students at all levels.
Let us hope that mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and other parts of the world can learn humbly from each other in the unprecedented and joint battle against Covid-19. If countries can learn from the good practices of one another, hopefully it will be a matter of time that Covid-19 will fade away and the world will return to normal.