My son, Jack, called from Hong Kong Friday night and gave me a picture of the “new norm” for a family living in a city of more than 7 million people doing their best to ward off COVID-19.
For starters, he’s not going anywhere. That’s not like Jack.
The company he works for has him traveling around the world, and it’s not unusual for him to be in Europe one week and Australia the next. That didn’t stop even when the virus struck China and then Italy. But then at one corporate meeting in Malaysia, which he fortunately wasn’t attending, one of a group of 10 had the virus. Jack called him a “super spreader” – a term I had not heard. As soon as it was learned those in the meeting had been exposed, they were all quarantined. All of them contracted the virus.
So, for the time being, Jack is anchored in Hong Kong with his wife, Jen, and their two kids, Lucy and Eddie. It’s great that the family is together; however, it’s all becoming wearing. The Hong Kong office has been divided into two groups that alternate weeks between working at home and in the office with no more than 25 percent of the staff working in the office at one time.
Lucy and Eddie have been out of school for about six weeks. It doesn’t mean they’re not studying. Classes are online, and while they even get to break out and work in groups of four and five all online, it’s hardly the same as being together. Some of their friends stop by and they’ll work together. Of course, they stay in touch with friends on social media, but it’s not the same as being in school, and Lucy, who is a junior at high school, is missing out on so many things going into her senior year. As has happened here, sports have been canceled – a big disappointment to Eddie, who loves baseball.
As we know, schools are closed here for the next week, but given what Jack and family are experiencing in Hong Kong, can we expect this to carry on for weeks if not months. Relatively, given the virility of the virus and we have yet to develop a vaccine, Jack feels the measures taken in Hong Kong have been effective. He notes the city has 145 cases even though the epicenter of the pandemic – Wuhan – is less than 600 miles away. He points out Hong Kong reacted swiftly shutting down schools and businesses.
With such a firsthand exposure to how countries are coping with the virus around the world, Jack finds the Hong Kong response reassuring. Unlike Milan, Italy, where coronavirus spread rapidly, confirmed cases in Hong Kong are not escalating dramatically. Jack credits control of the virus to isolating all people, not just those with the virus, and eliminating gatherings. Hong Kong is a city of tall buildings. He said people are stationed at escalators to sanitize handrails. They are also on and out of elevators to spray floor buttons. He estimates about 80 percent of the population is wearing masks. At stores, restaurants and other locations, people’s temperatures are taken with a hand-held device aimed at the head before gaining admittance. Overall, there’s been a dramatic reduction in the number of pedestrians.
Of all the countries he’s visited, Jack said Singapore has done the best job in communicating with the public and reducing panic. South Korea topped his list of countries that have done the best job in terms of testing people and managing the crisis. He mentioned that in China, where people have been quarantined in their homes, no more than one person per household is permitted to leave home to purchase essentials and those sorties are scheduled. They are given a form of “passport” that they download to their phones. Jack followed up his call with an email to share links showing the number of cases and those tested by country – worldometers.info/coronavirus/covid-19-testing – and home confinement in China, at scmp.com/news/china/society/article/3051031/hubei-residents-banned-leaving-homes-province-introduces-tough.
Jen’s perspective of how the virus has changed people is enlightening.
As the older population is at greater risk, she is encouraged that the younger population is doing what it can to protect them. This can vary from assisting them so that they don’t have to shop and be in places where they might pick up the disease to, in the case of strangers, giving them the distance so they know they are safe.
She senses a genuine concern for others and that measures taken, such as wearing a mask, are a statement that “I want to protect you” rather than “I’m afraid I might catch something from you.”
Here’s what she wrote in a follow-up email after our call: “As far as how Hong Kongers are taking care of one another, there is an overall feeling of care when out and about in town, either at the grocery store or at a restaurant. In such a crowded city, one where I recall always being shoulder-to-shoulder on the sidewalks, people are now taking care to give one another space. It's not necessarily the recommended three feet, but it is much more than it used to be.
“Also, wearing masks is common and culturally expected in HK. People wear masks somewhat for protection, but also to signify that they care and they are doing their part to reduce the spread of any germs. Because of masks, people cannot use facial expressions and must engage in meaningful eye contact and speak to one another in order to communicate effectively. Because of this we experience moments of personal interaction between strangers, usually just a matter of seconds, but they are overwhelmingly positive, supportive, and reassuring that we are all together in this challenging time, no matter what our age or background. I personally find this very calming and comforting, as well as empowering.”