What It’s Really Like to Live in Hong Kong Amid the Coronavirus Outbreak
Before boarding the plane, I checked my bag one last time: hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, alcohol sprays, face masks. Not exactly the “souvenirs” I had in mind, but I couldn’t go back to Hong Kong without them.
In the week that I was away for the Chinese New Year holiday, rumors of the coronavirus had exploded into full-blown panic as Wuhan, China — the epicenter of the epidemic — was already on lockdown and nearby Hong Kong prepared for the same. As soon as I landed in Hong Kong, I could sense that life had changed. The airport was empty. Streets often buzzing with patrons in restaurants or bars seemed eerily quiet. Everyone was wearing surgical masks. And local stores were ransacked, with shelves stripped of food, toilet paper, and every disinfecting product imaginable. It’s a good thing I decided to stock up before I came home.
Since moving to Hong Kong two years ago, my expat life has been full of discovery and adventure much more than I had expected. I was excited to live in such an international city with a vibrant mix of modern skyscrapers, beaches, and mountains, not to mention a gateway to the rest of Asia. But what I did not anticipate was the past eight months of anti-government protests and now this mysterious illness that has spread rapidly throughout Asia and the rest of the world. There were thousands of cases in China, so it was just a matter of time before the virus snuck its way across the border into Hong Kong. As the number of cases continued to rise, I couldn’t help but feel stressed and anxious — not only for myself but for my husband and two kids, too. Local friends assured me that Hong Kong had learned its lesson from SARS and was well-equipped to tackle this virus. We would be fine.
In 2002, Hong Kong was at the forefront of the SARS epidemic, which infected over 8,000 people worldwide. Though it took months for the city to recover, it emerged with a protocol to prevent future virus outbreaks from occurring. I never imagined I would be living here if they did. Almost overnight, the city implemented its full arsenal of extra bottles of hand sanitizer, routine temperature checks, and plastic panels over elevator buttons so they could be disinfected regularly. In my office, a white-gloved gentleman stood at the elevator to push the buttons for me. Yes, I feel obligated to wear a face mask in public and ask my kids to do the same — not as a foolproof barrier against the virus, but as a public reassurance of being germ-free. In fact, you can now get kicked out of taxi cabs or movie theaters for not wearing a mask.
Since people are still advised to avoid large crowds, life in Hong Kong is somewhat quieter. Employees enjoy flexible work-from-home policies. Retail stores have reduced their open hours. Social events, theater, entertainment, sports, and extra-curricular activities have been postponed or canceled. And most importantly, schools will be closed for three months until April 20. But remarkably, many local and international schools have resorted to virtual classrooms, which were introduced during the SARS crisis. Students log onto their computers via Google Hangouts or live chat groups with teachers administering the lessons to them at home. The only frustrating (and exhausting) downside is taking on the extra role of helping my seven-year-old who is not as technologically savvy. It confirms why I am not a teacher.
To avoid crowded restaurants, we opt for hosting lovely dinner parties at home. Or, when we do venture into town, no reservations are needed. Instead of the gym, I take advantage of the nature Hong Kong offers: long walks on the beach, jogging by the waterfront, or hiking along amazing trails with breathtaking views of the city. Plus, more time at home means more family time and finding new and fun ways to entertain the kids. Needless to say, we finally opened that 500-piece puzzle that has been sitting on the shelf for the past year.
Recently, we decided to go skiing in Japan for a few weeks — not to escape Hong Kong, but to take advantage of this strange and difficult time. Since life isn’t exactly “normal” right now, why not do something fun and unexpected, like hiding out in the mountains while still working remotely and continuing virtual school? If the coronavirus was going to interfere with our daily routine and activities, then we were determined to find new ones. My daughter has now learned to snowboard these past few weeks, which is pretty darn cool. Of course, the virus has now exploded here in Japan, too, so there is no way to truly escape it. You merely have to navigate around it and get in the habit of washing and disinfecting hands more regularly. And buy a good hand moisturizer because you’ll need it.
In a few month's time, I am confident that life will go back to normal. Although this has been a stressful time living in Asia, I know I’ll remember it. I want my kids to remember it. And more importantly, I want us to remember all of the wonderful things we did (rather than didn’t do) during these past few months. Occasionally, whenever I do feel a flutter of panic, whether it’s up a mountain or sitting in front of my computer staring at the latest virus statistics, I remind myself to pause, take a deep breath, and enjoy my time in Asia — the good and the bad — as nothing lasts forever. Hopefully not even the coronavirus.