Letter from the editor: Lessons from Hong Kong about life during a pandemic

A media video camera electronic viewfinder shows a passenger wearing a face mask and a makeshift plastic visor as a precautionary measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus after arriving at Hong Kong’s international airport on March 19, 2020. On March 18, Hong Kong authorities began ordering all arrivals from overseas to wear electronic bracelets, connected to an app to mark your location, and two weeks self-quarantine. Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

As I’m sure it did for so many of you, this week felt like an eternity as our family adjusted to life working from home. It seems like there aren’t enough hours—and as for balance, there’s no such thing when you’re covering the biggest story of a generation. 

As I write this, my five-year-old son is sitting across the kitchen table working on an e-learning math game. While I’m grateful for all that technology affords us—virtual meetings, coffees with friends, online education platforms—I’m already longing for the human interaction that we all crave.

But other regions have been doing this for much longer. 

For example, most of Hong Kong’s restrictions were put in place at the end of January, when it had just a handful of cases. Earlier this week, I invited Ravi Mattu, the Hong Kong-based deputy Asia news editor for the Financial Times, to share a postcard of what life will be like after being in the house for three months.

Ravi, a proud Canadian, shares his thoughts below:

Most people think being under lockdown will be tough. It’s actually even tougher than you imagine.

Life in Hong Kong gives a glimpse of what may be to come. Since late January, we have had a run on toilet paper on the back of an online rumour that supplies were set to run short, schools have been shut and most of us have had to avoid taking public transport or work from home for a time. The city was better prepared than most, having both been scarred by the SARS outbreak in 2002–2003 and weeks of anti-government protests late last year that brought the city to a standstill at times. 

On paper, this all sounds manageable. But in reality, there are unexpected hiccups that make life particularly difficult and Hong Kong has a unique set of circumstances—e.g., most people have domestic help—that are less typical in Canada. In mainland China, where e-commerce is all-encompassing to a degree that is not mirrored in most Western countries, online delivery workers became a crucial lifeline. 

The challenge of schooling cannot be underestimated. Schools have had to adjust rapidly to online learning, experimenting with multiple technologies, including Google Hangouts, using Zoom and other online schooling platforms. This works reasonably well for older kids—my 14-year-old and 11-year-old managed well. But for my eight-year-old son, it’s been impossible to expect him to do it on his own. 

For Canadians, helping older relatives or the more vulnerable will be especially tough—especially if they aren’t used to online grocery shopping. And even if they are, online delivery companies in places like the U.K. are struggling to fulfill the sharp and sudden rise in demand. 

Beyond the practical challenges, the social aspects of daily life are what you will likely miss most. If you work in an office, you will find yourself missing the interaction of your colleagues and the social banter that is part of office life. If you are a freelancer, you will miss being able to go to the local cafe where you might work during the day. All of this is fine for a few days but after a week, most of us feel the absence. We are ultimately social beings and need to see people in the flesh. Tech helps somewhat but nothing fully replaces seeing someone in person, whether you’re a kid who goes to a school, an employee or someone who has lunch at the same place every day. 

Hong Kong had seemed to turn a corner with nothing near the numbers of new infections that had been reported in the early days of the pandemic. But as the coronavirus has spread to Europe and elsewhere, it is now bracing for a second wave—not from Hong Kongers or Chinese, but from those arriving from abroad. On Wednesday, the city reported 25 new cases; all but three of them had recently been abroad. – Ravi

Hong Kong recorded 48 new coronavirus infections on Friday, the biggest daily jump since testing began, as medical experts warned the influx of arrivals from overseas had raised the risk of a COVID-19 resurgence to its highest level yet.