Just over a year ago, shortly after we moved here for my wife’s job, the authorities closed all the schools in Hong Kong for a week. The cause? Some students had got the flu. Cue bafflement from annoyed ‘gweilo’ parents – including me – who thought this a hysterical overreaction.
Maybe it was then. But that same approach seems to have come good this time. Despite dealing with it for months longer than countries like the UK, and without wanting to belittle the tally, Hong Kong is currently on 167 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with four deaths. Concern here is now about the risk of an imported second wave, along with worries about family and friends elsewhere.
In Hong Kong, all schools and kindergartens were closed straight away; we are now in week seven of home schooling, with no end in sight. At the start I foolishly pledged not to shave again until the kids went back; I now run the risk of looking like Lord Salisbury. All major events were postponed and venues were shut; travel restrictions were introduced and have since hardened; temperature checks on entering buildings became routine; increased cleaning regimes were seen everywhere; the lift in our tower block has a plastic screen across the buttons that is sanitised hourly; and the masks … well, the masks were everywhere overnight.
This isn’t an argument for any of these measures in and of themselves – I’m aware of the arguments for and against school closures and mask-wearing. The point I'm making is more about the cultural nature of the response.
Much of this is a result of SARS, which killed almost 300 here and infected thousands. The mindset that this could be serious – that it’s not just like a cold – ran deep. When this is all over, there will be plenty of inquests into what could have been different and whether governments should have reacted quicker. Yet the political scientist in me wonders whether governments in countries that had not experienced SARS would have been able to act much more decisively than they did without being told they were over-reacting. And even if they tried, would people have taken any notice? Or would everyone have been like the outraged parents, furious that their kids’ school was closed?
If I have any advice – apart from ensuring you have enough gin in the cupboard – it is to resign yourself to the fact that life has changed. That holiday you had planned; it’s not going to happen. Go through the stages of grief about things like that quickly, not least so you have real grief to spare in case you are unfortunate enough to need it. Don't rail against it. Accept it and adapt, as best you can. Take time with your immediate family. Watch some films. Read some books. Especially ones not about viruses.
Philip Cowley is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and one of the editors of Sex, Lies and Politics, published by Biteback last year. It contains nothing about viruses, but you can pick up a copy of it here.