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Trauma revisited: Coronavirus in Hong Kong



Right before I turned six, my parents packed us out of our home in high-density east Kowloon and moved into my aunt and grandfather’s seaside house. Just three metro stops from our home, cases of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) were trebling at the Amoy Gardens housing estate. School was suspended after weeks of having our temperatures taken and logged before class. Face masks were a ubiquity; we couldn’t even pop out for groceries without wearing one.

Hong Kong street during the daytime, people wearing masks (Photo by Jocelin Chan)

When I landed back in Hong Kong in late January to celebrate New Year, I didn’t anticipate reliving this traumatic period of my childhood. Yet, when I landed on Monday, face mask-wearers were in the minority. By Thursday, you would be hard-pressed to find someone unmasked on the metro. China finally confirmed after a month of concealment that the novel coronavirus was transmissible between humans and the cloud of dread that sank over Hong Kong was bitter with the 17-year-old trauma of SARS.

Hong Kong was hit hardest by the SARS outbreak in 2003, counting 299 deaths. In a city of 6.7 million, the spread of the virus was exacerbated by the high-density environment: most residents live and work in high-rise buildings and take public transport.

Experts blamed the Chinese government for covering up the initial outbreak in the Mainland, leaving Hong Kong unprepared for the devastation. Hong Kong still bears the scars of the epidemic; there are signs in lifts assuring users that the buttons are regularly disinfected, public service ads on disease prevention are routine, hand sanitiser is a feature of lobbies, and wearing a mask regardless of illness is common.

The novel coronavirus has similar symptoms to SARS with a higher infection rate and lower mortality rate. No one wanted a repeat of 2003. The coronavirus transfixed everyone; I couldn’t ride a lift or have New Year dinner or go hiking without hearing a conversation about the coronavirus. The demon of the past had reared its head again. As ill people were discovered in Hong Kong, it was easy to slip back into paranoia mode: hand sanitisers out, face masks on.

In the last few months, face masks had become contentious in Hong Kong. Many had donned them during pro-democracy protests to protect their identities, leading the local government to ban them. The court ruled this ban as unconstitutional; by the time of the coronavirus outbreak, the beleaguered Chief Executive Carrie Lam was still trying to overturn this ruling.

A new wave of criticism crashed over Lam. Even antigovernment vandalism, a feature of Hong Kong’s streets since mid-2019, took a public-health turn. She was slammed for not wearing a mask, for dropping her mask ban agenda too late, for not safeguarding the supply of masks as people queued to buy them. For issuing discriminative advice to foreign domestic workers, advising them to stay home on their single day off. For not imitating Macau’s extreme steps — closing the border with the Mainland and either deporting or quarantining all recent Wuhanese visitors — to protect medical staff and the vulnerable, ill-equipped and high-density population.


'Even if the government had to be pressured into action, Hongkongers maintained fastidious in following whatever public health procedures they could to protect themselves: wearing masks, washing hands frequently, avoiding wild animals, and avoiding crowds.'


Despite these shortcomings, the local government re-implemented a measure from SARS — faster than in 2003 — by suspending school until March. Civil servants could work from home; private businesses were encouraged to follow suit. Quarantine measures for those who had come in contact with those infected were immediate. After a week of strikes from medical unions calling for a border shutdown, Lam announced that anyone coming from the mainland would be quarantined for fourteen days.

Even if the government had to be pressured into action, Hongkongers maintained fastidious in following whatever public health procedures they could to protect themselves: wearing masks, washing hands frequently, avoiding wild animals and avoiding crowds.

Following advice from 2003, I shifted around my travel plans to avoid crowded metropolitan areas and made excursions to less-populated rural and countryside areas. In these places, I found myself in touch with the natural and local beauty that Hong Kong had to offer with sights that I probably would have missed out on if I hadn’t been trying to avoid the coronavirus. I could even take my mask off on a hike.

For many Australians, the coronavirus has made East Asians a source of fear. Seeing us wear masks provokes anxiety — we are paranoid, Other, and diseased. But the reality weaves a traumatic past with a complex present. We are only human, and just like everyone else, we want to protect ourselves however we can.



Jocelin ChanJocelin Chan is writer and Roman history postgraduate student based in Sydney. Her writing has appeared in Voiceworks, Pencilled-In, Visible Ink, Cortex Journal, and various university publications.

Main image: Hong Kong street during the daytime with people wearing masks. (Photo by Jocelin Chan)

Topic tags: Jocelin Chan, coronavirus, Hong Kong



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Existing comments

Jocelyn, thats an uncanny parallel with Sars. Again we have Mainland authorities initially censuring the Doctor who discovered the disease. Down playing the size of the epedemic. Whilst initial reports blamed the outbreak on the Wuham fishmarket, the truth may be more sinister as to how the disease came into existence. Bill Gertz of The Washington Times, whose motto is “Real. Trusted. News.” His story was based almost entirely on an Israeli biological warfare expert, one Dany Shoham. It pointed out that the epicentre of the outbreak was just 32km from the Wuhan Institute of Virology, which houses China’s only P4-Level Biosafety Laboratory, the highest-level classification of labs that study the deadliest viruses on earth. In the meantime the conspiracy theorists blame both the USA and China as the author of the disease. There is a level of paranoia worldwide that will not cease until a vaccine is discovered. The C virus is bad for business, education, resources, and for worldwide health. Lets hope a cure is found quickly.

francis Armstrong | 12 February 2020  

"Seeing us wear masks provokes anxiety - we are paranoid, Other, and diseased." It's to be hoped this perception doesn't go viral, here or anywhere.

John RD | 12 February 2020  

Like many, l don't know why, or how exactly this virus has come into being. I do know, however, about the working conditions of millions of poverty stricken Chinese, abused by those who own 'The Companies' those who's 'Thing' is to mass produce 'Capitalistic Driven Consumerism'. Designer goods made in China for less than 1% European, and all over the world, boutiques sell them at. Not to mention all the other international trade coming out of China. Likewise, at the unjust detriment of poverty stricken working class Chinese. Communism? A peasant revolution? Capitalism? Same, same? The oppression of religions belief... freedom of speech... See no evil, hear no evil, and keep your mouth shut. The errors of Russia will speed to the world. Remember these words? I do."O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee."

AO | 29 February 2020