Commentary: In Hong Kong, the COVID-19 outbreak sent shockwaves but could reinvigorate protests

Commentary: In Hong Kong, the COVID-19 outbreak sent shockwaves but could reinvigorate protests

All eyes remain on the Hong Kong government, as frustration over Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s management risks opening another front in the Hong Kong protests, says Doris Lam.

People wear masks as they walk at a marketplace in downtown following the outbreak of a new coronav
People wear masks as they walk at a marketplace in downtown following the outbreak of a new coronavirus, in Hong Kong on Feb 4, 2020. (File photo: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

HONG KONG: It is almost ironic to think that face masks, an item banned in Hong Kong just a few months ago has become the most sought-after item in the city.

In a sea of masked faces, people who remain bare-faced stands out like a sore thumb. 

After Hong Kong’s first COVID-19 death earlier this month on Feb 4, citizens went into full panic mode, clearing out all masks, cleaning supplies, toilet paper and alcohol sprays from supermarkets and drugstores, hoping to regain some sense of safety inside the city.

Hong Kong has seen more than 60 cases, with a few in critical condition.

These days, shopping malls, public transport and indoor spaces are emptied and avoided as much as possible.

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Schools reopened on Monday (Feb 17) after being closed since the Chinese New Year holiday, but saw many international students flocking home before that, worried that their countries would issue a travel ban.

Facebook expat groups are filled with people discussing whether they should flee the city with their children until things get better. 

HOW THE PROTESTS HAVE BEEN IMPACTED

Face masks, once a symbol that represented the resilience and unity of Hong Kong’s protest movement now signal protection and safety for the entire city.

With the city preoccupied with worries about the virus, the protests almost feel like something of a long-forgotten past.

People wearing masks shop in a supermarket in Hong Kong
People wearing masks shop in a supermarket in Hong Kong on Jan 30, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Dale de la Rey)

Indeed, the COVID-19 outbreak seems to have sent shockwaves across Hong Kong society, dampening rallies and other forms of political activity. Near-weekly protests that occurred just two months ago have almost completely halted and the remaining gatherings see smaller crowd sizes.

The paranoia that people have about being in close proximity with each other means that large-scale protests are no longer possible. Many opt to stay at home to minimise the chances of getting infected by the virus in group settings. 

Yet in a way, Hong Kongers have developed a mutual understanding for one another, valuing health and safety above it all, and letting the protests take a back seat in the midst of a sea of panic.

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Friends and families are sharing their limited supplies with each other, and businesses such as cosmetic chain Bonjour and political groups, such as Demosisto, are giving out face masks to the under-privileged or selling cheaper stocks to help with the mask shortage. 

A CHANGE IN THE PUBLIC MOOD

This pause in protesting seems driven by not just common attempts to protect one’s physical health but also a change in the public mood.

The worldwide panic and constant live updates about the virus have put Hong Kongers on edge, with many worried protests would heighten tensions within the city and create greater stress not only among residents, but also for stretched government resources and attention, which should be focused on managing the outbreak. 

For now, Hong Kongers are united in the basic need to be safe within our homes and have enough supplies.

A security guard locks up a building front after stocks of face masks ran out in Hong Kong
 A security guard wearing a facemask locks up a building front after stocks of face masks ran out in Hong Kong. (Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace)

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But all eyes remain on the Hong Kong government, with many frustrated with Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s mismanagement of the situation, which have seen mask shortages, troubling quarantine measures and delays over a decision to close Hong Kong’s borders with mainland China.

A NEW FRONT?

The outbreak may open another front in the Hong Kong protests and foment wider anti-mainland sentiment as well as mistrust with the government.

Last week saw Hong Kong’s largest medical workers’ strike at the government headquarters at Admiralty, which applied the same mass organisation and digital coordination tactics employed by the protesters.

Led by the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, around 7,000 medical workers marched to demand the full closure of Hong Kong’s remaining borders with China and better protections for healthcare workers. 

Representatives of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance protest in Hong Kong on Feb 5, 2020
Representatives of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) and other activists hold placards near the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Feb 5, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace)

Hong Kongers’ dissatisfaction towards the government all started with the anti-extradition bill.

However, Lam’s consistent letdowns at her role as chief executive have now raised questions about whether the Hong Kong government understood what it was up against in this fight against the COVID-19 and why it wasn’t more empathetic to concerns experienced by ordinary Hong Kongers.

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It could have certainly explained the situation more clearly and justify how measures were proportionate, as more facts about the virus emerge.

If the coronavirus outbreak situation worsens, Hong Kongers will look to the government to quell the fear and panic.

But if the response is muddied, waffling or indecisive, it’s almost certain the protesters will have more ammunition once the outbreak is over.

Doris Lam will be graduating from the University of Hong Kong with a Bachelor of Arts in 2020.

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