Hong Kong – city of 7.5 million masks
Wan Lik Hang is back in Hong Kong after almost three years. It is a different city from the one he left in November 2019. From the last days of mandatory hotel quarantine to the need for the correct colour phone pass to enter a restaurant, bar or gym, the Hong Kong government’s COVID policies crippled the Hong Kong economy. They are now mostly ended: recovery is beginning. Here are some extracts from Wan Lik Hang’s diary.
Landing in Hong Kong is unexceptional. It is hazy, hot, typical autumn weather. But the airport is empty. I was nervous about the testing and quarantine process, but it is efficient and quick - probably no more than 30 minutes to get to the baggage carousel. When my bags finally arrive, I get a taxi rather than the Covid buses the government has laid on. Masked and suited men spray my bags with disinfectant. The taxi driver – also in full protective clothing - takes me to my quarantine hotel in Causeway Bay. The scenery is the same but so much else is very different. The traffic is not what you could call traffic anywhere, let alone Hong Kong. There are almost no people walking in the streets and very little going on anywhere. My taxi driver speeds through from the airport to Causeway Bay without a pause. Hong Kong is empty and quiet.
There is little life to be seen out of my window at 6:00 o'clock on a Friday evening either, when Causeway Bay should be teeming with people, cars, buses, horns blowing and noise everywhere. Hong Kong is not an abandoned city yet. It's not in the grip of some terrible trauma. But it is clearly unhappy.
It's good to be back though, even with three days in complete isolation with no contact outside whatsoever. There are seven pages of instructions about what I must do to pass my COVID tests in the days to come. There is also a draconian warning (one of many) on my hotel door explaining what happens if I break the rules.
Days one to three
Seven days – let alone the three weeks that it used to be – must have been a nightmare. You do wonder what it is all for. I haven’t mentioned the food. You order this in advance. And then you forget what you ordered. The food that arrives gives you few clues about what you chose. It comes in plastic boxes like takeaways or airline food. It tastes rather worse than both. It is only just warm. You don’t put on weight in quarantine!
I feel unwelcome in ‘my’ city. I am a threat to Hong Kong just by being here. If I do exactly as I am told, maybe they will let me stay and not fine or lock me up. It is not a pleasant feeling. (I realise I am getting a good sense of how some migrants to other countries must feel about the reception they often receive.)
I feel that Hong Kong is dying. It will recover, but when?
I leave quarantine to start the first of four days of ‘surveillance’. I must test myself for COVID every day, and, on alternate days, at a community PCR testing station run by the government. The app which controls my movement to places like bars and restaurants shows amber until I get through these four days without infection. It then turns blue. Thus, what appeared to be ‘freedom at last’ is not quite freedom after all. I cannot even eat in the restaurant of the hotel in which I am staying. Having meetings in an office is out of the question. Masks are mandatory everywhere. If I am unlucky enough to get Covid, I might end up in the dreaded government isolation facilities on the former Kai Tak airport runway.
Instead, I've been holding zoom meetings with the people I would otherwise have seen in person. It feels bizarre. Have I really travelled 7,000 kilometres to Hong Kong for zoom discussions that I could have done in the UK? However, at least I am in the same time zone. In many respects video is an advantage. If we were to meet face to face, we would both be wearing masks inhibiting communication greatly. In a zoom, you can see facial expressions and have a normal conversation.
Walking outside, a joy even in 33 degrees, is a great step forward and I feel a lot better for that. The testing centre is only 15 minutes’ away. It's efficient, quick, well organised, and easy to book and to use. Typical Hong Kong efficiency one could say. Not only that but, as always, the testers are kind, charming and helpful. It must be a tedious job, but they do it cheerfully and with good grace.
However, having now talked to a good many people, there's no question that Hong Kong is feeling the pain. “There's no heartbeat in Hong Kong anymore,” said one senior executive. And indeed, there is not. Traffic is minimal; few people are walking around; everybody wears masks; the mood is depressed. Business is bad in every sector.
I've seen other crises. This seems worse because Hong Kong is alone amongst most other cities in its extreme COVID precautions. Yet China is even more strict. The implication is, probably correctly, that the mainland has influenced Hong Kong to be as strict as possible, if only to enable Hong Kongers to travel to the mainland and back.
Today there is great news. Hotel quarantine is over!
Incoming travellers under the new plan will ‘only’ go through three days of home ‘medical surveillance’, with their movement citywide limited. The question is, how far does this go? Is there to be daily testing still, for example? Will masks remain mandatory? The number of people who can meet is now limited to four. Will that be lifted? Despite the general relief, it seems likely that ‘lifting restrictions’ does not mean complete freedom.
Nonetheless everybody is hoping that this will be the first step in a general opening up. There are two big events planned in November, the international rugby sevens which Hong Kong founded and has hosted year after year, and a very important international bankers’ conference. I cannot see rugby fans waiting for three days to go and have a drink or a meal out!
Just this evening the mood has lifted a little.
I realise that the mood has lifted a LOT. People are out on the streets. Traffic jams are back! Suddenly people are feeling better. My code too scans blue, and I am a normal person again! When I hold my phone up to the scanner in a restaurant, I am allowed in. The crowds are back.
The future looks bright
Hong Kong will re-emerge as bright as ever, optimistic, and prosperous. I've seen this happen many times since 1981. This time is a little different – but then, no crisis is the same. There is so much at stake for Hong Kong both in Hong Kong itself, in China, and the world.
So - from a ‘dead’ city to almost normal in a week – what to make of that? But this is Hong Kong and life moves fast here. The jury is still out for 2023. Judging by the mood in the last 72 hours, my bet is that Hong Kong will quickly settle down and be prosperous and lively as always. It will reinvent itself. Depending on what happens elsewhere in the world, that could occur sooner than anyone thinks.
Worked on the article: