Commentary: Hong Kong will keep its chin up this COVID-19 outbreak and enjoy the small things
It hasn’t been easy since the city was hit with its first coronavirus case in January but we’re taking it slow, says Doris Lam.
HONG KONG: As an introvert who loves staying at home, I’ve been thriving during this pandemic.
Most of my days now look like this: Wake up without an alarm, browse through the Internet to find a recipe I like, attempt to recreate the recipe and show off my knock-off version of the dish on Instagram.
At some point during the day, I also attend university lectures online. Else I might stay home or meet up with a friend for dinner, before spending the rest of the evening on Netflix or work until 2am when I pass out.
Most of my friends have more or less the same routine.
At first sight, you might think compared to the negative sentiments over lockdowns and other painful stay-home restrictions people around the world have expressed, Hong Kongers have incredibly laissez-faire attitudes about the pandemic.
You wouldn’t be entirely wrong but it hasn’t been easy arriving at this state.
I would also argue it’s Hong Kong’s early measures and proactive citizenry who have embraced masks and physical distancing that have allowed society to continue with life as usual, with some semblance of normalcy.
Protesters have even returned to the street, with 250 arrested on Sunday (May 11).
FROM CHAOS TO CONTROL
To be fair, it hasn’t been a bed of roses for the city for the last few months. After recording a surge of cases in the city’s nightlife Lan Kwai Fong district in late March, the government quickly put social distancing measures in place, closing bars, gyms and beauty parlours, as well as banning groups of more than four people in public spaces.
Restaurants were ordered to keep tables at least 1.5m apart and put up physical shields between tables to reduce the spread of infection.
Thinking further aback, Hong Kong has been on high alert since late January. Chaotic scenes of citizens panic-shopping, wiping out cleaning supplies, groceries and face masks were abundant right after the first case was announced on Jan 23.
In February, some control was wrestled back, and precautions to stem the spread rolled out, as shops and restaurants started enforcing temperature checks. Many places required visitors to fill in a health declaration and personnel form in case of an outbreak.
After nearly four months, Hong Kongers have adapted to this new normal, some even embracing this fresh change, taking advantage of the slower-paced life and much needed time off from the city’s usual hustle and bustle.
With travel plans cancelled and “must-go” Facebook events postponed, many Hong Kongers have found themselves facing an empty social calendar for the first time in forever.
Many Hong Kongers are happy to visit their favourite restaurant even if it means a longer waiting time when social distancing has limited the number of available tables.
But rather than stay in malls and restaurants, where crowds bring risk of infection, more have opted to explore the great outdoors and spend weekends at beaches, hiking trails and parks.
Unfortunately, what that means is that while Lion Rock, Clearwater Bay and more had been refuges for Hong Kongers wanting a bit of a quiet afternoon get-away, they have been mad-packed these past few months.
Others have moved the party home, hosting small group game nights and dinner parties at friends’ houses, and spending time with family.
THE REAL TEST BEGINS
Marking 15 days straight without any local infection, there were visibly more people out in the city over the long weekend with public holidays to celebrate the Buddha’s birthday on Apr 30 and Labour Day on May 1.
Hong Kong patted itself on the back for a string of days with no new infections in the last month, but the streak was cut short when two arrivals from Pakistan tested positive in early May, and a local case of transmission involving a 66-year-old woman and her 5-year-old granddaughter surfaced this week.
Still, the low number of cases hovering just above 1,000 has been a good reason for celebration.
Now the real test begins. After over a month of remote working, civil servants have returned to government offices.
As the city’s social distancing measures were eased on Thursday (May 7), entertainment and establishments such as cinemas, beauty parlours and gyms have also gradually reopened, but there wasn’t the rush to head to these places.
CONCERNS OVER THE ECONOMY
Part of this might be because Hong Kongers are tightening their belts amid growing concerns about the state of the economy, which saw a 8.9 per cent shrinkage in the first quarter, the greatest decline since 1974.
“Our economic situation is very challenging. We’re deep into recession,” Financial Secretary Paul Chan said in early May.
Unemployment has been the highest in more than nine years at 4.2 per cent, with the food and beverage sector the hardest at 8.6 per cent.
While the pandemic has undoubtedly affected all, its deleterious economic impact has not been equal. Hong Kongers with smaller apartments might find working and studying from home a massive challenge. Cases of domestic violence have been on the rise.
BENEATH THE FACADE
The truth is, beneath the facade of happy hikers and picture-perfect Instagram recipes lie anxiety and fear.
As a senior finishing my last semester of university, my friends and I have been losing sleep over unanswered job applications, fearing the worst as the semester creeps to an end, a plight many who have lost their job understand.
Although the government is trying its best to create short-term jobs and relaxing the financial requirements for those looking to apply for welfare, families and individuals who have lost their main source of income because of lay-offs during the outbreak have little immediate support from the city.
The government’s HK$137.5 billion (US$17 billion) financial relief package focuses on keeping businesses running and employees working, ensuring that 1.5 million workers get partial pay during the upcoming months, rather than supporting the unemployed.
How will Hong Kong change when the pandemic ends and all is well in the world again?
As much as Hong Kongers are trying to take some pleasure in our newfound laid-back lifestyle, there’s no doubt that the city will waste no time snapping back into the fast-paced routine of shopping, eating and heading to the office we all love and miss.
But for now, we’re all just trying to keep our chins up, keep it together, and carry on living amid a pandemic.
That might mean being cooped up at home for a while more and finding a new recipe to try out. But that is something.
LISTEN: Why lifting lockdowns and easing restrictions may be the biggest COVID-19 test facing countries
Doris Lam will be graduating from the University of Hong Kong with a Bachelor of Arts in 2020.