Virus trans­forms daily life on Hong Kong’s fear­ful streets

Muscat Daily - - FRONT PAGE -

Hong Kong, China - Hun­ker­ing down in cramped apart­ments and raid­ing su­per­mar­ket shelves for food and masks, Hong Kongers are fret­ting about the fu­ture as fear of the new coro­n­avirus sweeps one of the world’s most densely pop­u­lated cities.

Many in the Asian fi­nan­cial hub of seven mil­lion - where the 2002-03 SARS out­break killed 299 peo­ple - are weigh­ing up their op­tions against an unseen dan­ger.

“I feel like I’m in a wash­ing ma­chine with other preg­nant women try­ing to fig­ure out what to do,” says Natalie Bel­bin (35) who is ex­pect­ing her first child and fran­ti­cally con­sid­er­ing her choices. Her baby is due in early April, a pe­riod some ex­perts warn could be the peak of the out­break.

Hong Kong’s al­ready un­der­pres­sure pub­lic hos­pi­tals have asked part­ners and fam­ily not to at­tend births to re­duce pres­sure on wards.

Some ex­pec­tant moth­ers in her What­sApp groups are scrap­ing to­gether cash to go pri­vate, while oth­ers have trav­elled over­seas or are con­sid­er­ing it.

Bel­bin is lean­ing to­wards stay­ing the course de­spite know­ing her part­ner may not be able to be there. “I’ve ac­cepted that,” she said. “But my main con­cern now is whether the baby will be safe in the hos­pi­tal.”

Many of Hong Kong’s in­hab­i­tants are hav­ing sim­i­lar dis­cus­sions about life in a city that has first­hand ex­pe­ri­ence of a deadly out­break. In 2002-03 Se­vere Acute Res­pi­ra­tory Syn­drome, or SARS, swept through hos­pi­tals and homes.

The epi­demic left pro­found psy­cho­log­i­cal scars and sad­dled lo­cals with a deep dis­trust of au­thor­i­ties in Beijing who ini­tially cov­ered up the out­break. With 36 cases of the novel coro­n­avirus con­firmed so far in Hong Kong, one of whom died, ev­ery­one fears a re­peat.

At the most ex­treme end, fear and dis­trust of au­thor­i­ties have sparked ex­tra­or­di­nary, and at times un­nec­es­sary, scenes of panic.

Su­per­mar­ket shelves in many dis­tricts have been stripped of hand sani­tis­ers, toi­let pa­per, rice and pasta, spurred by false ru­mours of short­ages that the govern­ment has con­demned.

An acute paucity of sur­gi­cal masks is real how­ever, with long queues when­ever a con­sign­ment comes in. At one phar­macy last week a crowd of 10,000 peo­ple turned up, some camp­ing out overnight.

At­ti­tudes have hard­ened com­pared to the city-wide sol­i­dar­ity that per­me­ated Hong Kong dur­ing the SARS out­break.

Po­lice of­fi­cials have clashed with pro­test­ers op­posed to ar­rivals from main­land China or quar­an­tine fa­cil­i­ties in their neigh­bour­hoods.

One planned quar­an­tine block was even fire­bombed.

Thou­sands of medics, in­clud­ing front­line doc­tors and nurses, went on strike last week call­ing for the border to be sealed.

Hong Kong’s un­elected pro

Beijing lead­ers even­tu­ally closed most land border cross­ings and be­gan quar­an­tin­ing any­one com­ing from the main­land from Satur­day. But even be­fore the cur­rent health cri­sis, anti-govern­ment sen­ti­ment was at an all-time high af­ter seven months of seething and of­ten vi­o­lent pro-democ­racy protests.

The per­ceived slow re­sponse - and fail­ure to stock­pile enough masks de­spite the city’s pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence with SARS - has only added to pub­lic anger.

And the out­break is also chang­ing daily life in more mun­dane ways. With schools closed, chil­dren are cooped up in a city of no­to­ri­ously small apart­ments. Teach­ers are try­ing to roll out online classes, play­grounds are empty.

Univer­sity stu­dents al­ready had months of classes dis­rupted by the protests. Fi­nal-year stu­dents now fret about whether they’ll even grad­u­ate. Many Hong Kongers are avoid­ing the of­fice and work­ing from home.


Peo­ple shop at a fresh food mar­ket in Hong Kong on Sun­day

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