Hong Kong: SARS and Scars — The Behavioral Change
January — March 2020
“Hey, what was SARS like?”
That was the first question I asked my Hong Konger colleague when we were checking Hong Kong’s dashboard for Covid-19 cases in January.
I told him my reasons for asking: I grew up in the Philippines where we only had 2 fatalities out of 14 cases and in primary school, the very thought we had at the mention of Hong Kong was SARS. Childish naivety led me to think that Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) was always in plural form: Hong Kong SARS with Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome as the definition of the acronym.
He stopped what he was doing and replied, “I am not sure. I was still a kid back then.”
“I remember watching the news; the footage was of Hong Kong people walking around while wearing masks during the outbreak.”
“Yeah, every day in school we had to wear masks [too].”
Like many Hong Kongers, that every day of his back then was relived again in the year 2020.
There was one thing in common when my colleague looked at me and the people from all walks of life here: I saw the fear and uncertainty in everyone’s eyes.
‘Ah, this is Hong Kong and it still had scars from SARS.’
I kept thinking that as I went around my daily life here. It wasn’t that I wasn’t scared. It was something like, what should I be scared of? The SARS epidemic happened 17 years ago. I had no firsthand experience. As days passed, the question was finally answered when I noticed that everyone’s behavior drastically changed.
Wanted: Face Masks
The government initially did not encourage the general public to wear face masks. Stemming from months of social unrest and general mistrust of China, the people of Hong Kong did not listen. The face mask dilemma happened: hoarding, online reselling, price hikes, long queues, and lack of supplies. I saw many wore face masks and they often stared at people who weren’t joining the “mask party.”
Health Workers Protested
The health workers held a strike for not closing the city’s borders early on and for making the treatment free for anyone. A surge of infected Mainland Chinese was most likely to end up in the city. It was new to me for health workers to protest and threaten the government that they wouldn’t show up for work (a few did) when an epidemic was looming before us. Thankfully, the government changed their policies (non-residents found infected would pay for all their medical fees) but denied it was because of them.
Fake news struck: toilet paper factories in China were closed, halting constant supply. I was out grocery shopping when it happened, gaping in shock at how the whole shelf dedicated to those in Wellcome was empty. I even saw people rushing to dispensaries just to get different kinds of tissue paper.
It wasn’t just that: cleansing products were in demand. Hand sanitizers, hand wash, and alcohol were all sold out. I saw notes from retail shops, apologizing that they were out of stock of the aforementioned.
Hoarded Aboard or Abroad
For lack of supplies, residents have either sought help from relatives overseas, stocked abroad before going back to Hong Kong or bought loads online. To be honest, I asked my relative in the US for face masks and she mailed it the next day. I received it the day after.
Many opted to stay indoors. I had heard stories of employers telling their helpers that they were not allowed to go outside even during their day-offs. The only exception was grocery shopping. How ironic. The helpers cried afoul. Many employers terminated their contracts and sent them home.
Restaurants that used to be mostly packed or had long queues outside only had few customers. Some of my teammates refused to eat together at lunch. They either had take-away, packed lunch, or my favorite: FoodPanda deliveries.
People started their day at work by checking the news and Covid-19 dashboards. They avoided hot spots and shared timely information. Sometimes, we even took breaks just to rant to each other about the worries we had.
My local colleagues kept emphasizing not to believe the numbers of China as they were all lies. They even told me to pump water on my flat’s floor drain, shower drain, and sink, as well as to keep the toilet bowl’s lid when I flush. Moreover, the toilet bowl lids in our office restroom have been kept on till now. They cited the story of the Amoy Gardens during the SARS epidemic. The tenants were infected because of a pipe leak. Based on headlines that time too, the fecal transmission was also confirmed.
Bat memes, derogatory remarks aimed at Mainland Chinese, conspiracy theories that the virus originated in a lab in Wuhan and many more were widespread on social media platforms. It was too much that when I asked my colleague how his family was:
“They’re okay.” He said, then with an afterthought, “Don’t worry, I’m perfectly healthy.”
“No, it’s not that you’re Chinese [and have the virus]…”
I explained that I was sincerely asking how his family members were because he was away from them.
Home Safe Home
Many expatriates, fed up already with the political situation, had returned or sent their children back to their home countries with an added reason: keeping themselves safe from COVID-19.
Washing or sanitizing hands frequently, kicking the doors open, disinfecting their possessions, keeping a 5 feet distance from each other, and pressing elevator buttons with a finger wrapped in tissues/plastic — just a few of the common behavior of how everyone was acting as if they all had germaphobia. Many of them had become just like me or even worse than me.
That first-hand experience I lacked was finally here.
I was foolish to even ask myself what I should be afraid of. It was invisible. It was deadly. This wasn’t just an epidemic, it was a pandemic.
They kept saying learning from experience was the key to survival and that’s what was ingrained in the people of Hong Kong.
After all, in only the first three months of the new decade, people have altered their habits.
There was no going back. Being vigilant had become the new norm.