The past year was a tumultuous and often tragic one for medical workers everywhere the Covid-19 pandemic struck. Hong Kong medics in the public healthcare system were among the first to treat victims of the disease, in a city still reeling from massive and often violent pro-democracy protests the previous year.
In a blog post on the second day of 2020, Dr. Pierre Chan Pui-yin, a specialist in internal medicine at Ruttonjee Hospital and a medical sector lawmaker in the Legislative Council, warned of the need to wear masks. Hongkongers were just beginning to hear about a mysterious respiratory illness in the mainland city of Wuhan. The fight against the fourth wave of the pandemic continues 12 months later.
HKFP spoke to Chan about lessons learned from 2020 and what was in store for the near future. Since his initial blog post, Chan has posted hundreds of charts of Covid-19 data on his Facebook page, and he handed dozens more to HKFP‘s reporter to illustrate his observations.
“This year has been so bad, no matter your colour,” Chan said, referring to Hongkongers’ divided political leanings. “Hong Kong is too grey.”
However, he said, the Department of Health and the Hospital Authority had performed above average. “They are not perfect, but they are doing good so far.”
Despite longstanding criticism that the Authority was underfunded and understaffed, especially during the winter flu season, “this time the HA was able to take care of its own business, and spare some staff to tackle problems outside of the hospitals,” Chan said.
It managed to send staff overseas to repatriate Hongkongers from China’s Hubei province and from the Diamond Princess cruise liner in Japan in February, as well as staff a temporary government hospital at the Asia Expo site.
This was the result of a successful redistribution of resources, one which could be replicated to cope with the city’s typical eight-week winter flu surge, Chan said, such as by minimising administrative meetings during such a surge.
“The Hospital Authority receives more than HK$60 billion every year, there is plenty of budget. They have 29,000 beds and 70,000 staff,” Chan said. “When there is a crisis, we need to shift resources to that red zone.”
But Hong Kong’s response to Covid-19 has been less successful than some of its neighbours, such as Taiwan and Macau where there has been no local transmission for weeks. Chan said he believed the top echelons of government were not giving enough attention to medical and public health officials in the face of political considerations.
For example, in order to avoid stoking public panic while masks were in short supply during the early days of the epidemic, government chiefs including Chief Executive Carrie Lam had said they were not necessary for protection. All government ministers were maskless at a press conference in late January, hosted immediately after they returned from a study trip to Wuhan.
“If you did it today, it would be unacceptable.” Chan said, adding that based on knowledge from the SARS epidemic in 2003, “even though we did not have experience or evidence at that time, we knew that it was infectious.”
After a government-led effort to distribute reusable fabric masks free of charge drew widespread scrutiny over filtration efficacy and privacy issues, Chan said Food and Health Bureau officials had told him they never were consulted, nor voiced out their concerns, when the initiative was discussed at high level government meetings. “[If] beyond medical – there are political concerns [about speaking out], there is a problem,” Chan said.
He said the work stoppage by some medical workers in February was one of the most memorable events in 2020, when 7,000 doctors and nurses went on strike to pressure the government to close its borders with the mainland to prevent the spread of Covid-19 in Hong Kong.
“I didn’t strike and never supported it,” Chan said, but “it was a pretty big deal, even for me, a union organiser.”
In 2015 he had called on medics to stage a 45-minute sit-in protest during a public holiday. “It was the most extreme I could imagine at that time,” Chan recalled. “So what they did [this year] was outside my imagination.”
As the new year approaches, what can Hong Kong expect in terms of Covid-19? “The worst case scenario already occurred,” Chan said.
An uncontrolled outbreak was unlikely but because of the leakage from imported cases, he predicted a fourth and fifth wave. Hongkongers might see some good days, and some days with more restrictions.
As an avid football player with three daughters and a wife, family outings are no longer an easy feat for Chan, or hundreds of thousands of other Hongkongers, with restaurant gatherings limited to two at a time.
Yet the more likely outcome, Chan believes, is a best case scenario. The pandemic will be overcome in six months and the city will return to zero local transmissions, as in May and June this year.
As our interview came to an end, Chan took out a roll of cling film from his desk, and swiftly wrapped it around his mobile phone before heading out for lunch. Cautious yet savvy, this seemed to typify how Hongkongers cope with a global pandemic.