After Brief Virus Victory, Hong Kong Takes a Big Step Back

Hong Kong’s victory over the coronavirus was glorious -- and, it turns out, brief.

After a six-week return to pre-Covid activity that included the reopening of schools, gyms, restaurants and bars, the city of 7 million is taking a big step back. Dozens of new infections have surfaced in the past week, and on Thursday, the government reactivated social distancing restrictions at restaurants, pubs and bars. Friday it announced an “early summer holiday” for local schools, which are still in session.

By midday, shoppers were lining up at drugstores and supermarkets to stock up on masks and toilet paper, evoking scenes from when the virus first flared in the Asian financial hub in March.

“It’s terrible when you wake up, read the news, and realize you are back to the nightmare you’ve been through several months ago,” said Karen Cheung, who works as a project manager at a Hong Kong construction company. “That’s how I feel this week -- we have to avoid all the fun things again, stay home and continue to live in the horror.”

After Brief Virus Victory, Hong Kong Takes a Big Step Back

The city reported 32 locally transmitted cases on Friday, after posting 34 on Thursday, the most in a single day since the pandemic began. That the virus is taking hold again in the community -- and at unprecedented levels -- is troubling, public health experts say. Until Sunday, Hong Kong had reported zero new local cases for the past three weeks. Incoming travel is restricted to the city’s residents, with everyone screened at the airport for the virus. Even those whose results are negative are required to self-quarantine for two weeks.

Origin Unclear

But even with some of the new locally-transmitted cases, authorities have yet to pinpoint their origins. That suggests hidden chains of asymptomatic transmission have been circulating in the city for some time.

No one should be surprised by the virus’s re-emergence, said Nicholas Thomas, an associate professor of public health at the City University of Hong Kong. “The painful reality is that until the rest of the world can suppress the levels of the virus to what we have seen in Hong Kong or New Zealand there are going to be repeated outbreaks.”

“The parallel issue is to what extent the economy and society can withstand continuing and unexpected disruptions,” he said. “It is a post-normal reality that is going to have repercussions for a generation.”

Other cities in the region that have seen previous success in containing the virus are also experiencing new outbreaks of infection. Flareups in Melbourne, Beijing and Tokyo -- which is reporting record new cases daily, albeit at a much lower rate than in the U.S. -- are a reminder that the pandemic is far from over.

Without an effective and widely distributed vaccine, cities the world over are likely to continue in a state of limbo where the easing of social distancing measures or lax implementation will lead to a spike in infections. The virus’s return is rattling markets, with the benchmark Hang Seng Index falling as much as 2.4% Friday. The Hang Seng China Enterprises gauge slipped as much as 2.9%, its biggest intraday drop since May 22.

“If you ask a businessman in Hong Kong how he feels now about the virus resurgence, the answer is ‘I’m numb’,” said Felix Chung, a Hong Kong lawmaker who represents the textile industry in the city’s legislature. “They’re now busy doing the math: how long they can still hang in there with the cash in hand? No one knows how long this virus will still be with us.”

Meanwhile, weary Hong Kongers are bracing for further restrictions. For now, restaurants and bars are still open, though for fewer customers. Restaurants will be limited to 60% capacity, and bars will be restricted to four per table.

Hong Kong entrepreneur Ben Chu worries that gaps in the city’s virus strategy may have contributed to the resurgence. Some people returning from overseas are allowed to self-quarantine with family members, and are free to catch taxis from the airport, he said.

“This just makes me feel even more uncertain, I’m not able to plan anything in advance,” Chu said.

The school closures, though, are a particular blow to families and working parents in particular. Students had only just got back into the classroom in late May after months of learning at home.

“I feel the virus outbreak will continue to affect our life for quite a long time,” said Lucy Zhou, whose six-year-old daughter goes to an international school. The government should consider school closures on a case-by-case basis, she said, so some schools might be able to stay open.

“I’m worried about my kid’s mental health and her social skills if she continues to stay home and just have conversations with adults,” she said. “It’s terrible for kids her age to live in such an abnormal situation for a long time.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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