Mike Graham, presenter of TalkRadio’s morning programme in Britain, has recently been on a telephonic trip around the world finding out how faraway places are combating the coronavirus transmission, particularly on the subject of ‘lockdown’. Last Thursday he dropped in on Hong Kong.
Down the line, I explained the precautions in place here. The comparative freedom of Hong Kong citizens to go about our daily lives was mostly met with astonishment from the radio host in London, living in a mandated stay-at-home land.
“70 per cent of Hong Kong is country parks. If you want to go out on a five-hour hike, that’s fine as long as there are no more than four in a group”. This was met with a one-word exclamation: “Blimey!” In the UK you are allowed out of your front door for only a few very specific reasons, one of them being half-an-hour of exercise each day. If you should sit to rest on a park bench and absorb much-needed vitamin D you are, at best, ushered on by the police. Fines are also a sanction. Any sedentary posture in the sunshine is obviously not exercise. Move on, return home.
The subject of masks quickly came up. Europeans are fascinated by the Asian predilection for face masks. I said they were ubiquitous on urban streets and transport; not by law but a 100% habit. I said I recently had a haircut and the barber asked me to keep my mask on as he trimmed neatly around by ears. This common place was met with: “Hairdressers! You mean they’re open?”
My interlocutor was baffled. In Britain, only supermarkets – for essential supplies – and pharmacies are open. All else is closed. As background, pertaining to masks, I ventured that Hong Kong’s experience of SARS in early 2003, with the memory of local fatalities of 299 in three months, had put us on our early guard. SARS remained an epidemic rather than pandemic, and the host was aware of it, but said it never rally reached Europe. SARS-CoV-19, the current strain, has only accounted for four deaths in Hong Kong – the last one a month ago – in our population of 7.4 million. In comparison, Wales alone (pop 3.8 million) has seen 198 virus-related deaths.
I did go on to add that it’s not all ‘life as usual’ and that international trips are next to impossible, even to Macau, so there is an element of travel claustrophobia. On just one day recently, just over 300 passengers flew out of Chep Lap Kok. This number would only fill two-thirds of one of Cathay’s regional Boeing 777s.
The telephone conversation concluded without my mentioning the necessary inconvenience of school closures and adapting to home office protocols. Such disruptions are, of course, shared worldwide.
In south-east England, this Easter weekend, the weather is unusually clement for the time of year. Sunshine and 23 degrees, not unlike here. As you grab a cab with the family to the beach, meet with three friends in an alfresco café or head for the hills, think of the beleaguered, constrained Brits staring out of the window at the best of Spring emerging from its winter cocoon outside.
Or perhaps don’t sympathise with the Brits. In France or, say, Dubai you need an online issued government permit just to poke your head out of the window.
Despite our lame government’s issuance of random banning orders from time-to-time, it may well be that Hong Kong is one of the best places in the world to ride out “self-isolation.” Our mental health is less likely to be compromised as we venture out under blue skies and, to a limited extent, socialise.
But, as to the financial health of many individuals, here these words of blessing-counting come grinding to a halt. For small business owners, casting adrift (at least for a while) loyal employees – their friends as such – can only be done with a heavy heart. In my immediate milieu of the self-employed, we are starting to calculate when our bank accounts will run dry.
Yet, reverting to and concluding on a more optimistic note, last week saw the number of new infections in Hong Kong dropped to single digits. There is hope on the horizon but I don’t expect Cathay will be revving its engines just yet.