After COVID-19 success, Hong Kong's health workers worry about reopening

While there are chaos and lockdowns across the globe due to COVID-19, Hong Kong has been one of the few success stories in its battle against the pandemic.

The coronavirus threatened to hit Hong Kong hard because of its close proximity to mainland China, as some borders were kept open. The former British colony is only a mere four-hour train ride from Wuhan, Hubei province, the ground zero of the coronavirus pandemic.

The special administrative region saw a turbulent year in 2019. Huge anti-government protests and university sieges added to a weakened economy and left the city reeling.

But Hong Kong has so far been successful in its fight against the coronavirus. To date, the city only has at least 1,056 coronavirus cases, with 4 deaths and 1,025 recoveries.

Compared to the Philippines – only a two-hour plane ride away from Hong Kong – where cases have surpassed 13,000, over 800 people have died, and lockdowns have been in place for over two months, Hong Kong has never imposed a coronavirus lockdown.

While the government did implement social distancing restrictions and business closures, it was the Hong Kong residents' intuition that has gained most of the praise.

As early as January, residents immediately began taking strict precautions against the virus, such as wearing masks regularly, practicing good hygiene, and implementing a change of lifestyle.

The normally busy streets of Hong Kong remained quiet until March as residents resisted the urge to leave their houses unnecessarily. Employees worked from home instead, and the residents' social lives were put on hold. 

Aside from the residents, Hong Kong's medical professionals also played an important role on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.

In early February, medical workers went on strike to urge the government to fully close the city's borders with mainland China to prevent further spread of the virus.

Lisa*, a registered nurse at Ruttonjee Hospital, is a member of the hospital's Infectious Disease team. Colleagues call it the "dirty team," a term used for those professionals directly treating patients infected with the coronavirus.

She spoke to Rappler about her experiences treating patients with coronavirus in Hong Kong.

"I work for 4 weeks in the 'dirty team,' and then I isolate in a hotel for two weeks. But I still have to work in a different ward. To keep in touch with my family, I use video call at night."

"The cases in Hong Kong are not very critical because most [of the] infected are younger and healthier. Most get out of [the] hospital after one or two weeks. Some of the younger patients are asymptomatic, but some have fever, sore throat, and cough only. Older people have shortness of breath and have difficulty in breathing. They need oxygen support." 

"I believe the numbers are real because even if there is a patient asymptomatic, their family members would eventually get it and show some symptoms. One of the most important things in Hong Kong is the tracking system is good. The authorities and ourselves have been finding the patients – tracing the source, and so it has been controlled very well. Once you find one patient, you know the second infect person and so on. We can look into their lives by just asking them."

"I think the peak of the second wave is over, but if all the markets and airports reopen, there might be a third wave. I'm worried about the reopening."

Lisa, however, said she wasn't worried about getting the virus herself.

However, she did admit there were some causes for concern within the hospital with patients waiting for their coronavirus test results.

"When the patients are waiting for their COVID-19 test results, they are staying in the normal ward. This situation means they can infect other patients and staff in their ward. Hospital patients' results come back around 4 to 5 hours from saliva tests. I think they should directly go to the isolation ward," she added.

COVID-19 IN HONG KONG. Residents in Hong Kong have been quick to take precautions against the coronavirus. This file photo shows Hongkongers in Tsim Sha Tsui on May 10, 2020.

File photo by Tommy Walker/Rappler

Despite the current success in curbing the spread of the coronavirus within a city that has a population of 7.5 million, Chris Cheung of the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA) is still looking ahead.

"Maybe there will be another phase of infections around June or July because some airlines will resume their normal services, and this will bring some incoming cases. The third wave won't be so demanding, it will be minor cases from around the world. Based on my assumptions there will be between 10 to 20 cases per week," predicted Cheung, treasurer of the HAEA.

HAEA is a trade union for medical professionals who work under the Hospital Authority, which manages all government hospitals and institutes in Hong Kong.

He added: "Hong Kong has the past experience from the SARS virus, so people know how to protect themselves. We took precautions early, earlier than the rest of the world. If people keep wearing masks it's a good precaution to protect against the coronavirus."

With cities in mainland China reopened, there are reports Hong Kong could allow immigration services to resume once again.

"I'm more worried about the China situation because the numbers cannot be trusted. It's not good to resume the borders right now," Cheung said. 

"Our next principal target is to make sure the Legislative Council elections take place in September. If borders reopen, it's a threat to Hong Kong," he stressed. – Rappler.com

*Name has been changed upon subject's request

Tommy Walker is a freelance multimedia reporter and correspondent. He covers news, politics, health, and travel, and has reported on events and stories relating to North Korea, Colombia, Venezuela, France, and Russia. He is based in Hong Kong.

Tommy Walker

Tommy Walker is a British journalist, photographer and travel writer currently based between Hong Kong & Taipei. In 2019, Tommy reported for Rappler as Hong Kong correspondent for the anti-government protests. His work provided frontline videos from demonstrations which included the Polytechnic University siege, and Hong Kong’s national security law fallout. His work has also included covering the COVID19 pandemic in 2020.

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