Life in the time of corona: lessons learnt? Ruminating on coronavirus scares past and present, Alexander Grasic applauds everyone for keeping calm and carrying on
I was walking along the SoHo escalators some two hours after the first confirmed COVID-19 case was announced in Hong Kong. Already I was in the visible maskless minority. In my state of exposure, I made a mental note to pick masks up as soon as I could, though I knew even then that I was probably too late.
The spate of preventative measures soon followed: The working from home, the school closures and the quarantine zones. The temperature checks and the rubbing alcohol pots. Then came the hospital horror stories of overtaxed and undersupplied workers drawing straws to decide who treats the infected. The rising number of cases – the waning number of flights.
I may have been a student when Bird and Swine Flu hit Hong Kong (2008 and 2009) but I was cognisant enough then for the past three months to feel quite familiar. I was just six years old in 2003 but I remember parts of SARS quite well, well enough to know that if you were here then, all this would feel familiar to you too.
The thing that I can relate to the most is the school closures, and the resultant general slowing down of life. I remember being ecstatic when classes were cancelled early in the summer of 2009; most kids I’ve asked about the current closures seem anxious to get back to school. I guess I was a slacker.
I messaged my colleague Terry Chow, the art director at Around DB, to ask what feels familiar to him. It turns out that while he didn’t feel particularly scared during the previous outbreaks because he believed that if he kept to clean environments and avoided crowded areas, he would be safe, he feels harder hit by COVID-19.
“It’s a stronger virus, and people can be carriers without realising it; and there are also more openstyle quarantine buildings, even within Lantau,” Terry says.
“But you asked me what feels the same, and that’s the hiding at home, working at home and being bored at home. We’re all stuck at home with no social activities, and there’s no school for our kids. I’m worried about the health of my kids and of my elderly parents like I was in 2009, it’s just this virus has me more worried.”
Terry and I bashed out the thorny subject of mask-wearing. The World Health Organisation recommends that you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected COVID-19, or if you are coughing or sneezing. It stipulates that masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcoholbased hand rub or soap and water. Walking around DB I notice that, just as it was in 2003, few expats are wearing masks though elsewhere in Hong Kong most people do. (We have plenty of green open spaces in DB, right? And the only mask that can truly protect against COVID-19 is the virtually unwearable N95 respirator, is it not?).
However, the word from Island Health is that we do wear them: ‘Wear a mask when crowds are unavoidable, when around sick people, or if feeling unwell yourself. As it has become socially unacceptable not to wear a mask in Hong Kong, and some buildings actually require it, you may need to wear a mask at times simply to make other people comfortable, or conform with local measures.’
This is Terry’s take on it: “If you don’t wear a mask in Hong Kong these days, people look at you like you’re a monster. But seriously, when we go out, we need to be protected from head to toe. This virus is so dangerous for sick people and for old people, like my parents. They are easily infected so we must do our best to protect them, as well as ourselves.”
For six-year-old me in 2003, wearing a mask and routine hand-washing was a novelty: I remember being at school before they all closed and being told off for scratching my nose through my mask. From that point on, I tried to avoid touching my itchy face for as long as possible. Back then, it was all a bit of a game but now that I’m older and travelling around town more, I understand I too have a part to play. We are all responsible for mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
I know that being in my early 20s I am at a low risk of getting serious complications if I do get infected. But Lantau is full of young children, pregnant women and senior citizens. So, the more I practice good hygiene and the more often I wear a mask, the more I help to provide secondary protection for vulnerable people in my community, like my aged father.
So, what is different this time round? Facts tell us that COVID-19 is more contagious (we are experiencing a pandemic), and that it has already caused more deaths than SARS, but facts also tell us that SARS had a much higher fatality rate.
Both my parents explicitly mentioned the relative lack of panic in 2003. In fact, my mum said she doesn’t remember much about it. The EA gig she had at my school was on hold but she was working two other jobs both of which could luckily be done from home. I guess she was too busy to take stock and simply got on with what needed to be done. Mum didn’t recall the same sensationalism in the media. For Dad, the biggest difference between then and now is the anxiety around dwindling essential supplies. “There was no run on toilet paper back in SARS. Some people were stockpiling food, though I’d say it wasn’t as intense as this time around.”
It’s clear to me that social media has encouraged the panic buying, and maybe even the speed at which people left Hong Kong. Terry agrees but also highlights its usefulness. “Most people including myself are discussing COVID-19 via social media; we can learn more online than we can from the news on TV. We can find out who has masks in stock, about government policy, about the best way to protect ourselves…”
And what of all those families who have fled for the duration? Family friend and long-time DBer Caroline Clery says: “It was the government’s decision to close the schools so early on, and to keep them closed that has prompted more people to leave now than during SARS. COVID-19 seems to have instilled more fear though, maybe because of the media as well as the government’s handling of it. With more countries imposing travel restrictions or quarantines on arrival, leaving now has become increasingly unlikely for many.”
For those of us who’ve stayed home, it’s been surprisingly busy in the plaza. The other night I was at dinner and ran into another old family friend who’s been here longer than we have. We grabbed each other’s arms, but she quickly recoiled and cried in feigned shock: “We shouldn’t be touching!” She then flashed a wink and we embraced anyway. No points for guessing that she’s British.
Ah that famous stiff upper lip. The slogan the British government coined in 1939 to allay fears of an aerial assault on Britain (as well as fears of an anticipated German invasion) may be well-remembered now. There’s nothing for it but to ‘Keep Calm, and Carry On’ as best we can. Take it from those of us who have seen some of this before, and made it through to better times..