Updated: May 7
By Chao Li
COVID-19 tales from Hong Kong, China
The COVID-19 outbreak appears to have brought Hong Kong back to normal. The masked protestors have disappeared from the streets. Like many other places, COVID-19 has been a primary concern for most people who chose to wear masks. Hong Kong still appears abnormal, but in many ways, the cycle of life continues. People are still working at the office and commuting the same ways.
“Am I going to be affected today? Is the person right next to me carrying the virus?” These are questions I ask myself frequently when I’m on a bus or the subway. Commuting in Hong Kong typically takes an hour to an hour and a half. Constant shoulder to shoulder contact is unavoidable. Social distance can’t really be applied in Hong Kong. Face masks are practically the only protection available.
It has occurred to me that I am living every day as if it is my last day of normalcy since there is no guarantee that something dramatic won’t take place tomorrow. Before leaving the house, I used to stop and check if I had my keycard, IDs, wallet, iPhone, and transit card on me. Now there is a new addition: a mask. Several times over the last few weeks, I had to return to pick up my forgotten mask, not just out of fear of the virus, but also fear of other people’s judgment. It’s simply not possible to go out without one anymore. People would turn you into a social outcast. Restaurants won’t even allow people without masks to enter.
As the economic hub of Asia, perhaps even the world, Hong Kong has never stopped providing opportunities for people to get rich, though their fates are often like bubbles in boiling water. While big shots are busy making big money, common people are obsessed with catching up, be it via short term trading of stocks, collecting a new print of the 100 HKD bill, or via reselling tickets to a popular show or a famous art exhibition. People have no issue with speculation. Everyone is trying to benefit from a chaotic state.
In the past, I’d lived in Beijing, New York, and San Francisco for five years each. After my first five years in Hong Kong, I pondered the differences from a cultural point of view. It was a surprise that despite Hong Kong being a metropolitan city, diversity was not as easily found here. At least compared to New York.
The Hong Kong crowd simply goes anywhere it pleases and all at the same time. When the famous artwork, Along the River During the Qingming Festival (清明上河图) was on display a few years ago, there was no way to get a ticket without using connections, making reservations way in advance, or paying two to ten times the face value of the ticket. During the COVID-19 outbreak, hiking routes have been packed on weekends, simply because city life cannot go on as usual. Everybody appears to have had the same thought. The gaps between social and economic classes has never been greater, particularly between people in their twenties and those who are over 30 and relatively established. Despite these divides, every age group shares a preference for the outdoors.
Nevertheless, the COVID-19 situation remains surprisingly under control in Hong Kong. My company hasn’t had its employees work at home for even a single day. Our company employs more than 2000 people and has no space for social distancing. Our only protective measure is having our temperatures checked twice a day. Anyone with a temperature over 37.3 Celsius is sent home on sick leave. Amazingly there are no cases of COVID-19 at my company so far.
Today is April 20th, 2020, and there is not a single newly reported COVID-19 case in Hong Kong. Now we are all looking forward to the re-opening of the borders between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, which has outpaced Hong Kong in many ways. Still, nobody knows what will happen with COVID-19 in the future. Will there be a second outbreak? Will there be a second wave of protests in Hong Kong?
The dramatic events of 2019 have robbed people of their trust for one other, and now no one is satisfied with the status quo. The people of Hong Kong have been waiting for change, as nearly everyone knows our current situation is not sustainable. Nobody knows what may happen next. Perhaps waiting is actually the essence of life. I am waiting just like everyone else while trying to maintain balance in a time filled with uncertainty.
Dr. Chao Li is a registered civil engineer and scientist living in Hong Kong. He is a past president of ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) Greater China. His interest includes philosophy, Chinese literature, poetry, and astronomy.