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Letter from Hong Kong – Jonathan Cheng (B2 1982-86)

We hear much about the impact of Covid-19 and how it is affecting lives here in the UK but how are our overseas OMs managing? We invited a few of our international alumni to share their experience and we start this week with Jonathan Cheng (B2 1982-86) who lives in Hong Kong with his wife and twin boys, aged 12.

Even before the social unrest in Hong Kong had calmed, news had already come over the border at the end of 2019 that there was some unknown pneumonia in Wuhan. The painful experience of SARS was still very vivid in every Hong Kong residents mind. With experts warning by early January, because of the number of cases in Wuhan, that there was human to human transmission and it was transmitting very efficiently, everybody in Hong Kong expected that the pneumonia would be like SARS except a lot easier to transmit, and that it is coming! We prepared for it the best we could. Even before we had our first case, the media were already in a frenzy about whoever had a sore throat or fever!

When the first case eventually arrived on 23rd January 2020, because of vigorous testing, contact tracing, and other emergency measures that were put in place, we managed to contain the virus as best as we could. With a city of 7.45 million people, with 6300 people per square km, we only have a little over 1,000 cases. More than half of those already recovered. Only four people died and they were all quite senior or with other complications. Our health care system was therefore spared. Hong Kong people’s lives were saved.

Hong Kong was never under lockdown although there were other social distancing measures such as only four people could gather and each group of people must be at least 1.5m from the next group, all schools were closed for a few months and all bars, gyms, beauty clinics closed. But in general, Hong Kong citizens stay in their home as much as possible. Although not mandatory, it was seen as our civic duty!

However, the situation for the economy is visibly more dire. As you walk down the street, a lot of shops and restaurants are closed. Those restaurants that are open, because of the government emergency measures, each table only has no more than four people and each table is 1.5m away from the other table. Everyone on the streets is wearing masks, and if you do not wear a mask, you are frowned upon. Traffic is a lot lighter nowadays. Traffic jams are rare to see. At the entrance of every building, there is someone outside taking people’s temperature. On the whole, human activity is less and like everywhere in the world, unemployment has shot up, and business closures have become common place. Whilst people‘s movement is not as restricted as some of the European countries or America, there is this general feeling of gloominess and hopelessness.

Yesterday, I was walking through the airport express in-town check-in. The counters were closed but the building was still open. There were the usual senior people sitting on the bench chatting away because they were enjoying the free air-conditioning. But it was a lot more quiet than normal. However, what was really disturbing was that on the other side of the lobby, there are least four or five homeless people walking and lying around, making themselves very comfortable. It was almost like an abandoned city, and one that was abandoned quickly and sharply so that all the infrastructure was still in place!

Looking on the bright side, there are now a lot more wild animals about! I see many more black kite eagles, parrots and other birds that I don’t usually see, flying in the sky over Hong Kong. Because of school closures, and having to work at home (although not mandatory, but strongly encouraged by the Government), I get to spend every hour of the day with my family, which I’m sure I will never be able to do again after this.

As at the date of writing, we have more than two weeks of consecutive single digit new cases, with some days even recording zero. School public examination has resumed. If things continue the way they are, schools, which never reopened after the Chinese New Year holidays in late January, will start soon, and social distancing measures will end. We are all keeping our fingers crossed. However, as we are probably coming to an end of the effects of Covid-19 in Hong Kong, I fear that we will go back to the social unrest that we had last year. I do not honestly know which is more scary!

Jonathan Cheng (B2 1982-86)