How Hong Kong beat coronavirus and avoided lockdown

Health, Fitness & Food

When Apple closed its retail stores around the globe amid the coronavirus pandemic, a handful of outlets were exempt, including its six locations in Hong Kong.

In fact, much of Hong Kong has felt relatively normal this year compared with its peers, which enacted strict lockdown measures.

Since its first confirmed case of Covid-19 on Jan. 22, Hong Kong went through phased closures of government offices, schools, gyms and bars. But other services were relatively unaffected, including dine-in service at restaurants, shops, malls, and trains.

Today, office workers are back to business and the city has reopened its gyms and even nightclubs.

By all accounts, Hong Kong’s situation could have been bad. It’s one of the world’s densest cities. Public transit is often packed. There are even direct flights and trains from Wuhan, the Chinese city where Covid-19 first emerged late last year. In fact, more than 2.5 million people arrived from mainland China in January alone.

With a population of 7.5 million people, Hong Kong has recorded around 1,200 cases. Singapore, by comparison has had more than 43,000 cases, amid an outbreak in migrant worker housing. That caused the city-state to enact lockdown measures for more than two months.

In contrast, Hong Kong had consecutive weeks of zero new cases.

Hong Kong managed to avoid a lockdown while containing — and to a large extent — eliminating Covid-19.

Here’s five reasons why Hong Kong managed to avoid lockdown while defeating Covid-19:

1. Experience

Many people in Hong Kong remember living through the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.

“We had never experienced something like that at that time,” Leah Choi told CNBC recalling her experience of growing up in Hong Kong. “But because of our experience during SARS, the Hong Kong people are much more alert.”

Choi recalled teachers taking her temperature and having to wear face masks all the time.

“Today, the Hong Kong people are much more diligent when facing the coronavirus outbreak, where we know what to do because we already had an experience of what could happen if we don’t take all these safety measures against the virus,” she said.

The first day of returning to school in Hong Kong since the SARS outbreak on May 12, 2003.

Getty Images

The outbreak, first identified in 2002, eventually came to infect nearly 1,800 people in Hong Kong. Following the health crisis, Hong Kong’s government created the Center for Health Protection, which specializes in disease prevention and control.

“When they first heard about cases occurring in mainland China, people took it seriously,” Keiji Fukuda, professor and director at the School of Public Health at The University of Hong Kong told CNBC.

“The public really responded and so, in most places in the city, you could really see that most people were wearing masks,” he said referring to the days following the city’s first confirmed case.

2. Decisive border control & strict quarantine measures

Hong Kong closed nine of its 12 border checkpoints in late January, leaving the remaining three open to facilitate the flow of goods. As the situation evolved, the city banned all non-residents from entering, starting on March 25. By early April, there were only about 100 daily visitor arrivals and those who arrived had to undergo a strict 14-day quarantine.

Marco Bellanda, a Hong Kong resident of six years, flew from his hometown in Italy back to the city on May 10, where he was immediately tested for Covid-19. Despite his test returning negative, he was still required to quarantine for 14 days. During that period, the government tracked his location through an app and an electronic wristband he was required to wear. 

“I have to sleep. I have to shower. I have to cook. I have to do everything with this,” he told CNBC over video call while in quarantine in his home. When he returned to his apartment following his initial test, he was instructed to walk around his home, so the government could ensure his movement over the next two weeks would strictly be within his home’s coordinates.

Marco Bellanda, a Hong Kong resident of six years, arrived back into the city and was required to quarantine for 14-days with a location-tracking wristband.

CNBC

“I cannot go downstairs or outside, otherwise I think it will ring,” he said. “Actually, I don’t want to try because the fine would be HK$25,000  ($3,225) and six months jail.”

Besides the wristband, Marco has also received sporadic calls from government officials on WhatsApp, ensuring he was home and asking if he had any symptoms or was feeling unwell.

As infection levels plunged, the city gradually eased some of its border controls at the end of April.

3. Contact tracing

Contact tracing is a method of locating people who may have been exposed to Covid-19. In many cases, these people are instructed to self-isolate for 14 days to monitor for any potential symptoms. The practice has been used extensively across many Asian countries during the coronavirus pandemic.

Upon his return to Hong Kong, government officials asked Bellanda to write down the license plate of the taxicab that brought him home. This way authorities could contact the taxi driver in case Bellanda later tested positive for Covid-19.

The Hong Kong government also updates an interactive online map depicting detailed information about all the confirmed cases around the city, including dates and times of movement.

4. Centralized government

Hong Kong’s relatively small population has made it easier for the government to monitor and control the movement of its people as opposed to places with bigger populations.

For example, the U.S. has had different responses to the pandemic at the federal, state, county and city levels, making a coordinated approach much more challenging.

5. Cultural habits

Professor Fukuda, who previously worked at the World Health Organization, has lived in both the U.S. and Asia. He thinks cultural outlook has played a large role in the way the outbreak has been contained in the latter.

“If you can get people and the government to work together, it’s an amazingly powerful combination,” he said. “There’s a very high consciousness about not wanting to affect other people and not wanting to put them at risk. So, when the public says, we’re part of the reason why things are going well, it’s absolutely true.”

Fukuda highlighted politicization has hindered the U.S. and its ability to contain the outbreak. The U.S. has now reported more than 2.6 million confirmed cases.

“In Asia, there is a very significant degree of concern about other people, about taking care of each other,” he said. “In the States, it has really exposed that there are big cultural differences in the country. So, whether you are in the rural areas or in the cities, whether you are in red states or blue states.”

“Whereas in Hong Kong, if anything, the outbreak has brought people closer together,” he said.

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