Updated: Feb 28
25th January 2020
I woke up in Hong Kong on the first day of Chinese New Year to an eerie feeling - the usual cheer of welcoming the New Year has been replaced by an unsettling mood. As we tried to carry on with festivities and celebrations, the overhanging tone across the city was one of uncertainty and fear. The China coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan 900km up north dominated our conversations and was the focus of all news. The atmosphere in Hong Kong is weary, as this is all too reminiscent of the 2003 SARS outbreak, which infected over 8000 people worldwide and killed 300 people in Hong Kong. The coronavirus isn’t the only thing spreading - anxiety and fear are as infectious, fueling a hysteria of panic as the city apprehensively waits for the virus to takeover Hong Kong too.
We tried to stock up on surgical masks and antiseptic hand sanitizers, but we were told these have long been swept off the shelves of pharmacies. The Hong Kong government has declared the outbreak an emergency with the highest epidemic alert and announced measures to prevent further infection. Primary and secondary schools will remain closed for a further two weeks after the Chinese New Year holidays, and the annual city marathon has been cancelled. Hong Kong’s two amusement parks, Disneyland and Ocean Park, have shut their doors until further notice. All flights and high-speed trains from Wuhan to Hong Kong are suspended indefinitely. People who have visited Wuhan in the past 14 days will be denied entry into Hong Kong and all visitors must complete health declaration forms at borders and ports.
President Xi Jinping has formed a special crisis group to address the epidemic as the number of reported cases in mainland China surpassed 2800 with the death toll at 82. Wuhan city, the epicenter of the outbreak with a population of 11 million people, is on lockdown with flights, trains and buses in and out of the city suspended. Military personnel have closed all major transport links and only taxis are permitted to travel within the city. Video footage and reports from Wuhan illustrate scenes of despair and desperation as citizens are scrambling for food, clearing markets, and crowded hospitals are overwhelmed by people seeking for help. Smaller hospitals in the province are launching public appeals for basic equipment such as masks, gowns and goggles. At least ten other cities in the Hubei province are also on lockdown in an attempt to contain the virus. Major cities across China have enacted travel bans.
The Chinese government is rushing to build a temporary hospital in Wuhan in 6 days with 1000 hospital beds to treat and quarantine those infected by the coronavirus. Work is underway for a second temporary hospital with 1300 hospital beds. Meanwhile, Chinese scientists are working vigorously to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus.
The coronavirus has spread to many countries outside of China and Hong Kong, including Malaysia, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Canada, France and USA. Hong Kong has confirmed its eighth case of Wuhan coronavirus, which is being treated in a specialist Infectious Diseases centre at Princess Margaret Hospital. The Hong Kong government is under pressure to close its borders to mainland China. Friends and relatives are talking about leaving Hong Kong if things become worse when the country resumes work in the coming days after the holidays. People are concerned that the figures reported are severely underestimating the magnitude of the epidemic. My family, like the rest of the city, keeps a constant close eye on news updates.
During Chinese New Year, it is customary to greet family and friends with well wishes such as ‘Gung Hei Fat Choi’ (Bless Happiness and Prosperity) and ‘Long Mah Jing Sun’ (Spirit of Dragon and Horse). This year, behind surgical masks, we are all wishing each other ‘Sun Tai Geen Hong’ (Good Health), as we pray that this epidemic ends better than the last one.
Author: Karen Chui