Fresh from the protest frontlines, HKFP’s May James has been roving around Hong Kong during the coronavirus outbreak, capturing how the city which survived SARS is coping with being one of the first territories hit by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Coronavirus struck Hong Kong just as it was reeling from non-stop pro-democracy protests and unrest. The epidemic grew from fewer than 100 confirmed coronavirus cases at the start of March to almost 800 by the end of the month. Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration finally closed the mainland border to all non-residents on March 25. The authorities then enacted what would become the first set of social distancing laws on March 27, in response to a massive spike in infections and signs of a community outbreak.
Covid-19 was first detected in China’s Hubei province last December and has infected more than 26 million people, causing more than 800,000 deaths across almost every country, according to research conducted by the Johns Hopkins University. Hong Kong had reported almost 5,000 cases and almost 100 deaths by September.
Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan had said that the government was implementing a “suppress-and-lift” strategy to fight the virus. “We have to look at what numbers are acceptable or what risk is acceptable,” she said. “It is a gradual lifting, a gradual paving the way.”
The announcement came at a time when the coronavirus situation in the city was, as she put it, “rather stable.” By late June, Hong Kong had recorded close to 1,200 cases of Covid-19 and seven fatalities. But, since then, a third wave has hit the city, stabilising only in late August as Hongkongers were offered free public testing.
Hong Kong’s social distancing measures have long been criticised for their role in clamping down on protests, with apparent inconsistencies in enforcement.
Since March, police have regularly used group assembly prohibitions on gatherings as a legal means to deter protesters — in many cases issuing fines before the street protests materialised.
The authorities have also been criticised for inconsistently enforcing the law, with social media showing images of crowds of unmasked people packed on the streets of the trendy Soho food and beverage district.
“It is ironic, considering that [the police] are trying to enforce social distancing, and yet they came for 15 minutes and left,” said Marguerite, a customer at a bar on Peel Street in May.
She contrasted it to the situation at Victoria Park during the June 4 vigil, where police warned the public against gathering to commemorate the Tiananmen Square crackdown.
The government ban on public gatherings of more than eight was increased to gatherings of 50 people on June 16, only to be reduced to two people a fortnight later.
A bar owner said that he saw the police had set up an orange cordon line to separate the crowds, but the effects were only temporary. “They quashed the crowd, but after half an hour everybody came back,” he said on June 27.