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Hong Kong Cold
By William Stork

Here in Hong Kong it’s Super Bowl Sunday (though, due to the time difference, it’s actually Monday morning), but in HK it is hard to find a channel carrying the game. Television coverage has shifted from covering the anti-government protests to satisfying the information needs of the populace about the Wuhan-based novel coronavirus.

Meanwhile, the media has reported that the eminent virologist Dr. Yuen, at the University of Hong Kong, announced that these current 14 days will be the ones during which, for Hong Kong, the virus will be most virulent. He is not a big fan of the surgical mask, which he says only inspires false confidence as it still allows people to congregate. Better to wash hands regularly, use an alcohol-based antibacterial spray, and stay home. In China some cities have imposed a restriction that a person can only leave home every other day and then only to go to market (or seek medical attention).

This news sort of stopped me … what would it be like to be confined for two weeks at home? But, thinking about what Dr. Yuen had said, I have decided to try it, and I am now on a two-week self-imposed quarantine.

Silver lining? Yes. I am making good progress on my 2019 IRS 1040, I have done a good bit of writing and belated correspondence, and there is that load of ‘those books to be read’ on the bed-side table, a stack that is already three books shorter.

I was in HK at the time of the SARS epidemic, as were most of the population here, and this foundation has amplified the current anxieties. That 2002-03 scare was traced back to a market that was selling civet cat, and this year’s virus is said to have originated in a market that was illegally selling, wild animals, including bats, as food. Research shows that bats are well-known as a major source for virus, and while this is an uncomfortable fact, it also shows a path for researchers bent on finding medical treatments and, possibly, a vaccine. So much for any good news.

For SARS, the concern was person-to-person infection, and until this week, it was hoped that would not be the case for this virus, which has now earned its unique identification as “2019-nCoV.” However, Hong Kong hospitals report two cases that proved positive for the disease in people who have not any travel history to/from Wuhan or any other part of China. And there is a similar case in Thailand for a man who is/has been locally resident, but now is testing positive. He’s a taxi driver.

The populace here has been less than happy with the government’s response to this crisis. Unlike Singapore, which has a stockpile of surgical masks for free distribution in case of any similar outbreak, Hong Kong has left the distribution of any existing masks to pharmacies and other local businesses. Desperate Hong Kong is experiencing mask-seeking queues three times longer than those that form when Apple announces its new iPhone. People are panicked, as the life-expectancy of a surgical mask is but one day, and people are in great fear of leaving home without one. Outlets that have masks are limiting the number that can be purchased; the prices are doubling (and more). The public is asking what the government is doing to supply masks, to which the government replies that they’re on order and should arrive ‘soon.’ Not widely known, the government has instructed its correctional institutions to mobilize prisoners to make surgical masks, on ten-hour work-shifts. Much exists on the social media forums on how to steam-clean masks or how to make your own out of cloth. Both methods are fake-news, as neither is effective. The concern rises daily.

Also of concern here is that the Hong Kong government, unlike that of its neighbor Macau and that of other countries, has not denied travel to people coming from China. While some cross-border stations have been closed and tour groups prohibited, Hong Kong has also called upon China to end its visa-permit system for mainland travelers from China to HK. But the public here continues to ask, “Why not just close the borders completely?” There’s little doubt that the hospitals here are better than those on the mainland, and though the hospitals are already overburdened, they remain a magnetic target for mainlanders. Overworked hospital staffs are concerned about this additional load, and the hospital staff union has called for a strike tomorrow unless the government does, in fact, close all borders. For the first day, that strike will be limited to just 3,000 hospital workers, and hospitals are closing all non-emergency services. Should the government still not have acted, the rest of the union’s hospital workers will join in on the following day.

This, too, adds to the local anxieties, as the media continues to talk about the spread of the virus to all regions of China; the first death outside China (in the Philippines, 1 February); the running total* of the numbers (yesterday, 2,829 new cases, up from 2,590 on Saturday) infected in China and the death toll there (yesterday 57 deaths, up from 45 on Saturday; and the spread of the virus worldwide. None of the news seems to be positive. There is no other conversation about the Australian brush fires, none about Brexit, none about the impeachment of Trump, and but a brief distraction at the shocking death of Kobe Bryant.


* Total number of cases worldwide according to the South China Morning Post: 17,388.   Total number of deaths worldwide: 362. Major questions exist about how many cases there are in China and the rapidity of its spread. The February 3 New York Times, for example, had an in-depth article citing widely different data and metrics from different sources around the world.

More information at South China Morning Post

There’s more from Bill here: Hong Kong Cold, Part 2.

Please comment below.

6 comments to Hong Kong Cold

  • Chris Cory

    Classmates: read Bill’s compact report on the early stages of Hong Kong events. He’s a top journalist.

    Bill — the situation seems to worsen daily, but your extremely solid reporting comfortingly show that at least some people there know what is going on. I’m no longer CorSec, but send a hardy ‘Bravo’ to the current team, including one of our own ‘Tom Brokaws,’ Dick Riseling. Watch for more coverage as the Far East seems close to a major health and trade collapse.

  • Bob LeFevre

    I agree with Dr. Yuen. Masks, perhaps other than on some one who is actively coughing , breed a sense of false security. This virus appears via droplets to travel about 6-8 feet before the droplets settle on something like a counter top or door handle. Masks are uncomfortable and require adjusting which put fingers in close contact with the mucous membranes of eyes, nose and mouth. These are the entry portals.

    So frequent hand washing or sanitizing with a gel combined with keeping fingers out of touch with mouth and nose are the key. Not easy to do, but fiddling with a face mask likely makes contact more likely thus negating the benefit of a mask.
    Looking forward to reports on how 14 days of isolation goes.

  • David Scharff

    Bill, thanks for your first-hand updates. Puts us in the know, and our best wishes to escape this with just a little boredom.

  • William Stork

    Thank you kindly for your comments, Chris!