The somewhat silly but definitely vulnerable blog post I wrote about how I’ve been “surviving” the last six or so weeks of social distancing went a wee bit viral – but in a good way! Which I did not at all expect. I would have spell-checked harder if I had! But what those numbers say to me is that people are scared. People want concrete information, practical tips, and to feel a measure of calmness. These are unprecedented times and the lack of leadership and direction in the US and other Western countries is appalling and quite heart-breaking, to be honest. I want people to be prepared and not so scared.
I’ve gotten a lot of comments and questions about some of the things I said, so I thought I’d address a few. I’m not pretending to be a medical expert or a scientist, but as a Hong Kong resident and news junkie, I’ve witnessed firsthand how countries successfully slow down the spread. Keep in mind I’m writing this after six weeks of STRICT measures being taken. We’re coming on the other side of this now in Hong Kong and many countries in Asia. There is hope.
THE most important thing you can do is practice social distancing as much as you can. It’s almost the only thing you can do. If you want to see an incredible visual explanation of how it can work to slow this spread, click this article here. The virus can be passed in many ways; breathing, particles, fecal matter, up to six feet with a cough, and we’re still learning. Here in Hong Kong, someone got it from a sick person on another apartment floor, that they never interacted with, because the droplets traveled through the pipes in our bathrooms. One family went out to dinner and they shared food so every person became infected. And probably every worker in that restaurant. An airport chauffeur was in a car for 25 minutes with someone showing no symptoms, and they both ended up ill.
The virus stays active for up to 3 days on surfaces. You can be healthy and be a carrier for up to two weeks and not know it, showing no symptoms, infecting everyone you come into contact with during that time.
As of right now, Hong Kong has only 149 cases, despite proximity to China, where this virus originated in November. Why so low? Why have the numbers in places like China, HK, Taiwan, Japan and Singapore stabilized so quickly?
For starters, every country here has an active national response team for health emergencies. There are contingency plans. The memory of the SARS outbreak still lingers. Like the rest of the world, we have flu outbreaks almost yearly and in HK they very quickly shut down schools for a week or so to contain them. It’s taken seriously and people’s lives are placed at higher value than business profits. Or election numbers.
This is a very informative article with tons of graphs and information to deep dive into, and a quote I like a lot is “The earlier you impose heavy measures, the less time you need to keep them, the easier it is to identify brewing cases, and the fewer people get infected.” That sums up what happened here.
The population density here makes it so we cannot take risks. We have to have a community response. We have to have data. Even healthy people understand that vigilance is important. Many border crossings were shut down (albeit slowly at first, because economy!) so that people could be tracked more easily. We all reported to our workplaces where we had traveled, if we’d been in contact with anyone who had been to China, if we had any symptoms at all. We all stayed inside, cleaned and disinfected like mad, and waited. Besides the necessary trips to the grocery store and the gym (which I admit, I probably shouldn’t have been going to), I didn’t leave my house for about four weeks. I didn’t take public transportation. I went on one hike. I went out to eat twice and we were the only people in the restaurants. We tipped heavily.
A friend visiting Vietnam had to download an app upon arrival and report temperature and any symptoms every single day, along with address and contact information and passport. In China, one family member could leave the apartment once every three days, but mostly the government set up systems to have everything delivered to your door.
Everyone worked from home. People were forced into taking unpaid leave, forced to take 25% paycuts, signing in agreement at the risk of losing their jobs. All schools moved to online learning, with some local schools just going on extended break and agreeing to starting school earlier in the summer. Museums, amusement parks, playrooms, sports, concerts, any kind of social gathering was canceled.
It’s more of a cultural thing here than the actual ability to prevent spreading, but everyone already wears masks in public places when they are sick. And now we all wear them all the time, or you will not be allowed inside buildings. Taxis won’t pick you up. Employees wear gloves at stores and shops and markets, movie theaters only book every other seat, etc. Sanitizer is everywhere. Your temperature is taken and you are asked about your travel history before you enter many places, signing a document that swears the information is true, along with your contact information.
Because such drastic measures were taken in the beginning, it just now feels like things are getting safer. The numbers are staying low. In fact, the new cases showing up in Hong Kong are actually imported from places like the UK at this point. So now, seven weeks after the restrictions on work and school were implemented, we’re having to place travel restrictions on anyone trying to come into Hong Kong. After weeks of family and friends begging me to come back to the States (and several moments where I seriously considered buying a plane ticket out of here), it’s statistically much safer to be in Asia. If I were to fly to the States and back at this point, I’d have to quarantine myself in Hong Kong before returning to work. And during those two weeks, I’ve been told I’d have to work without pay!
Many of my friends are now back at the office, but many are still working from home as much as possible. As for my work as a teacher, the government’s Education Department assesses situations like flu outbreaks, typhoons, and protests (yes, my last three years here have been amaaaaazing) and they decide when all the schools get to return after big disruptions. They’ve had to push the return date back a few times, but we’re looking at going back to school on April 20 (please, sweet Jesus!). I haven’t seen my students since January 23rd. We started Chinese New Year break the next day and haven’t gone back to school since.
While having nine weeks of school online isn’t ideal (and has been incredibly challenging as a teacher), it’s better to have been vigilant and strict about the social distancing so that we can return feeling safe and confident. When they opened schools up too soon during the SARS outbreak, there were lots of student cases reported. Based on what’s been learned from previous outbreaks and the incubation period of Covid-19, the best policy is to wait for 28 days without a new case being reported, and then stagger starts back to school, starting with the oldest kids and week by week, working down to kindergarten.
Hong Kong is a different living model in many ways, but particularly in that we have “aunties,” – domestic helpers that usually live in with their families. Or multi-generational families live all together. I think there are about 12 people in the apartment across the hall that is the same size I share with one roommate. This village living makes it easier to decide to close schools and take precautions with children, because a lot of families know they have childcare available. I know this isn’t an option in many countries with two working parents or single parents, and it’s actually much safer for a lot of those children to be at school where they are fed, warm, and supervised. Shame on us as a modern world that that is the case. It’s hard to imagine what the next few weeks might look like for those kids, but great to see communities stepping up to provide food and care for those who will need it, and I encourage anyone who can to do so.
Like the rest of the world, Hong Kong is full of shops, retails stores, restaurants, touristy places, bars, cafes, etc., where people simply can’t work from home. Lots of people have lost their jobs, businesses closed, people suffered, people freaked out, the economy took a downturn, we worried. Our lives were put on hold.
BUT because we took those drastic measures, things are stabilizing. Now, nearly seven weeks later, we are walking down the streets (still taking all precautions) feeling a little freer. I took a bus. I visited a baby. There are people in the parks, still all in masks, but playing soccer again. We are starting to go to restaurants again.
Lots of fun things have been canceled or are still closed; I was politely uninvited from a bachelorette party this weekend because my flatmate was hospitalized for five days and we weren’t sure what she had, but I understood. These are mad times. But improving. Places are reopening. The grocery stores have been fully stocked for weeks now. We are STILL inside most of the time. We are STILL glued to the news and watching in horror as this spreads to other places and people don’t seem to be taking things seriously enough.
The testimonies and reports coming out of Italy and Iran are bone-chilling. And the numbers in the States, my home country, are tracking with what we can see from the virus’s rapid progress through Italy. They waited too long. If the numbers keep going at the current rate, there will be one HUNDRED million cases known in the States by May.
So please. Do what you can to stay home, stay safe, take care of yourselves and each other. A great analogy I’ve seen is to pretend you are already infected and act in such a way that you wouldn’t give it to anybody else.
I know it is hard to hear this stuff and it’s stressful and would be much easier to ignore and pretend this will all sort itself out on it’s own. But I think it might be wiser to be really cautious now, and be able to return to normal life sooner, having made some weird memories with your loved ones indoors for a few weeks, watching absolutely everything in your Netflix queue, teaching each other new card games, learning an instrument, learning how to sew, completing a puzzle you’ve had forever, etc. Maybe I’ll finally learn what Tik Tok is, I don’t know. Then one day we can look back and say “remember when . . . ”
Please. Please please. Make socialdistancing cool. Stay inside and send me a selfie. Take care of yourselves and each other.