Hong Kong has achieved the seemingly impossible during the coronavirus pandemic: it has limited confirmed cases to four figures and just a handful of deaths without closing shops, shutting restaurants or forcing its 7.5 million residents to stay at home or undergo mass testing. Taiwan and South Korea achieved similar feats while also being on the doorstep of the original outbreak in Wuhan, China. How?
All three East Asian countries and territories quickly implemented a similar suite of measures, including closing schools, issuing masks and tracking down everyone who had been in contact with a confirmed case and placing them into quarantine. Responsive. Extensive. Intrusive, even. But still stopping well short of the Chinese government’s draconian lockdown measures in Wuhan that some European governments and US states have had to emulate and would rather not repeat.
Every country could benefit from following the actions of Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea. Nonetheless the most important takeaway should be the importance of learning from experience. Each member of this trio was prepared for Covid-19 due to an earlier deadly outbreak this century that caught them unawares: either Sars in 2003 or Mers in 2015. Both are coronaviruses, so muscle memory kicked in when this one came along. The three nations deserve credit for not repeating their mistakes.
The good news is that the US and Europe should have learned this lessons of their own flawed, fumbled responses to this year’s outbreak. Covid-19 will be the Sars or Mers moment in the west. Official response plans will be modernised, reactions sharpened and collective memories of the previous outbreak updated. (Prior to this they could only draw on the Spanish flu of 1918.) Governments and the governed can both act differently next time.
After all, there’s nothing inherently unique about the three Asian countries, geographies or economies. Chinese culture certainly doesn’t involve the same kind of hugging and kissing as in Spain or Italy but close-knit, multi-generational families share food all the time and tend to live together in confined spaces. Singapore’s experience is worth noting given its cultural composition and the lower impact of Sars. The city-state’s initial attempt at a hybrid east/west response to Covid-19, including keeping schools and offices open and not recommending the wearing of masks, failed to contain a second wave of cases and forced the government to implement a total lockdown.
Any early-warning advantages of being close to China (arguably less significant in today’s hyperconnected world) are more than negated by the risks that proximity brings. Hong Kong’s achievements are particularly outstanding given its porous land border with the mainland; Wuhan is directly connected by a four-hour high-speed rail journey. In January alone, some 2.5 million people entered Hong Kong from the mainland for a mixture of business meetings, family visits and tourism. Anti-Beijing protests have cut the number of mainland visitors by half since 2019 but 2.5 million is still a third of Hong Kong’s densely packed population.
Experience is critical. My first visit to Hong Kong was in 2006 and I moved to the city in 2014, which puts me in the post-Sars generation. The 2003 epidemic, which killed 299 people with a 17 per cent fatality rate, is the public health equivalent here of the handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, insofar as people speak about life before and after Sars. They talk about how the city was cleaned up afterwards and public hygiene greatly enhanced. Some of my “post-Sars” generation used to roll their eyes at these war stories but, having experienced Covid-19, we can all now understand why it left such an enduring legacy.
What has been telling about Hong Kong’s reaction to Covid-19 is that the population didn’t wait to be told what to do; they did it first, watched the government catch up and then often pushed for more, forcing officials to effectively shut the border – herd mentality of a more intelligent, informed and independent kind. Chief executive Carrie Lam faced little if any criticism for shutting schools or requiring civil servants to work from home – a rare moment of consensus in politically divided Hong Kong.
A study by the University of Hong Kong concluded: “Having been one of the most heavily affected epicentres during the epidemic in 2003, the community in Hong Kong has been prepared to respond to emerging infectious diseases.” Some 75 per cent of respondents were already wearing masks by 23 January and 60 per cent were avoiding large gatherings – two months before physical distancing became law. At the same time, Wuhan was being locked down by the Chinese government and western leaders were meeting at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss ski resort of Davos to discuss the bullish US economy.
Why were Americans and Europeans so slow to respond? Was it due to lack of information from their governments? Official data in Hong Kong has been timely, transparent and trustworthy: daily briefings and detailed online dashboards contain the sex, age and movements of every confirmed case, including, where relevant, their flight numbers and building names. Or was it down to no prior experience? Sars didn’t really spread beyond Asia (besides Canada), so why, the west might have wondered, would Covid-19 be any different? Yet 17 years on, outbound traffic from China has soared. Perhaps the west’s problem was in asking too many questions. Do masks help? Why close schools when Covid-19 is not affecting children? Hong Kong was taught the answers by Sars and it has regularly implemented school closures during flu seasons ever since.
The initial dilly-dallying by the UK – my home country – has been exposed as shockingly inadequate. Some of the government inaction was negligent bordering on criminal. Yet I can recognise much of the hubris in my own reaction – and I (kind of) live in China. I didn’t work from home; I didn’t wear a mask until the who changed its advice and I didn’t stop travelling until the Hong Kong government slapped a band on my wrist and confined me to two weeks of quarantine, monitoring my movements via a smartphone app and checking in with regular phone calls.
Basically, I waited to be told what to do, or rather, told what I couldn’t do. I carried on as normal instead of learning from those around me. For weeks my Chinese teacher had been visiting my apartment and conducting the lessons through a mask (not advisable). Like many in Hong Kong, he had cancelled his travel plans over Chinese New Year, long before the high-speed rail link was closed and flights to China were stopped. Giving up going to Wuhan with the in-laws was not the end of the world for him but would I have stayed in Hong Kong over Christmas? It’s best not to answer that. Let’s just say that this won’t happen again. I’ve listened and learned.
One of the enduring questions in the US and Europe will be about privacy and individual liberty. Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea all used measures that would be considered invasive during “peacetime”, from monitoring movements on mobile apps to rounding up anyone who had been in close contact with a confirmed case and placing them in an out-of-the-way, out-of-season summer camp for a fortnight.
Privacy advocates are right to raise questions and we should all be wary of mission creep. But critics would be wrong to paint the population of these places as pliant or willing to be co-opted by authority simply because pedestrians wait at traffic lights. This is especially the case in Hong Kong, where trust in the government is at an all-time low. The city went into the Covid-19 outbreak after eight months of pro-democracy protests.
Government business is routinely panned in the court of public opinion at the same time as these pandemic measures have generally been deemed fair, proportionate and necessary. One of the few protests during the pandemic erupted when officials tried to turn disused public housing into a quarantine centre – it was, more than anything, a case of Nimbyism.
As recent experience has shown, the idea that freedom and democracy-loving Americans and Europeans would never consent to home confinement has been debunked. They (or we) just didn’t know it was necessary. Now we know and the vast majority of citizens living in the west have already been following far stricter rules than in any of these East Asian countries and taking responsibility for their own actions. Ultimately, Hong Kong, like Taiwan and South Korea, has managed to navigate Covid-19 without a lockdown. That’s surely a lesson worth heeding in the future if western nations want to avoid being stuck at home again for months on end.
Monocle comment: One effect of the pandemic’s global nature has been to provide benchmarks against which all countries can be judged (fatality rates, speed of clampdowns, etc). Nations such as Taiwan and South Korea were decisive and felt the benefit; others, including the UK and US, dithered and didn’t.
About the author: Chambers is monocle’s Asia editor and has been Hong Kong bureau chief since 2015. Raised in the UK as a hand-shaker, he tried and failed in recent months to master the kung-fu greeting; he can never remember the correct order.