With transit resuming for international travellers through Hong Kong International Airport on June 1, and virus-control measures gradually being lifted, there has never been a more critical time to stay committed to social distancing in Hong Kong. While many important hygiene practices, including mask-wearing and handwashing, have remained with Hongkongers as a legacy of SARS, a lacklustre commitment to social distancing now seems apparent.

Although public gatherings continue to be banned and a mandatory 14-day quarantine for international arrivals has been extended to September 18, the border to China has remained partially open, as have dine-in restaurants. Bars, nightclubs, gyms and beauty salons are now operational again following a month-long shutdown. In recent weeks, social media has been awash with images of crowded bars in Lan Kwai Fong, Wan Chai and even Sai Kung, with few masks or any proper social distancing to be seen.

Photo: GovHK.

During a global crisis that is not yet controlled with drugs or a vaccine, and without knowledge of the true prevalence of the virus within our local population, there is still a high risk of community transmission. If the Hong Kong government were genuinely committed to reducing the spread of the virus, risky activities and behaviours would be strictly monitored and enforced. We cannot afford to be complacent.

Impact on children

The virus spreads easily and quickly, and has been present in the territory since January. Without a dedicated drive for community testing, it seems an epidemiological impossibility that there are not far more cases of Covid-19 in the local community than reported.

The government’s guidance on Covid-19 has changed dozens of times – the latest update coming on June 2, following the cluster of infections at the Kerry Logistics Centre, and Lek Yuen Estate in Sha Tin.

But, while adults have been free to play throughout much of the pandemic – potentially contracting and spreading the virus silently through their families and the community – the impact on Hong Kong’s children, and their education, has been largely dismissed.

Photo: GovHK.

Indeed, Hong Kong’s children have experienced one of the most prolonged blanket school closures in the world, being kept at home since Chinese New Year. Children in Nursery and Primary One will be the last to return. Coupled with the closure of playgrounds and playrooms, this age group has been deprived of basic play the longest – something that is a core component of cognitive and emotional development.

Recent modelling studies of Covid-19 have indicated that school closures prevent significantly fewer deaths than other distancing measures, yet have a tangible impact on children’s health and mental wellbeing.

By comparison, countries such as New Zealand, which has now declared itself virus-free, acted rapidly at the outset, choosing to close borders and inconvenience adults (rather than children) with the swift closure of restaurants, pubs, clubs and beauty salons. Schools were closed for eight weeks, reopening in mid-May with social distancing measures such as designated “kiss-and-go” zones for parents to drop off youngsters – all handled without any significant cases of transmission among children. These contradictions must be accounted for by the Hong Kong government.

Mask-wearing remains critical

Scientific studies have shown that droplets from the mouth or nose of an infected person can spread up to 8 metres. On June 5, the WHO released tardy guidance that face masks should be worn in public or close confines with other people; something Hongkongers have been diligently doing since January, when the novel coronavirus first emerged.

A restaurant in Hong Kong under social distancing measures. Photo: GovHK.

A relatively easy and practical rule to reduce the spread of the virus where social distancing is not an option, such as on public transport, is the enforcement of compulsory mask-wearing in public. This rule has been embraced by multiple international airlines, including Cathay Pacific, and mandated by more than 50 countries, including Singapore and Qatar.

With every week that passes, news of another country being ravaged by Covid-19 comes into focus – last week, it was Brazil. This pandemic is not anywhere near over, and we have no idea of the true state of virus prevalence in our community. For the sake of caution, and as a sign of solidarity with the greater global population, we must maintain vigilance and be adult enough to apply a sense of agency around social distancing. Community testing should be a priority, a distancing regimen strictly enforced by the Department of Health, and wearing a mask in public made mandatory, with consequences for those who shirk safe health behaviour.

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Dr Ariane M. Davison

Dr Ariane M. Davison is a virologist and immunologist with experience in the global healthcare and biotechnology industries. She earned her doctorate from The University of Sydney Medical School, has presented by invitation at international conferences, and her original work has been published in international scientific journals.