How One Gym Sent Tremors Through Hong Kong’s Financial Industry

Covid-19 has come for Hong Kong’s privileged expatriate community — and it’s entered through a gym that caters to bankers, hedge fund managers, financial analysts, stock brokers, their friends, family and anyone who works and does business with them. Expatriates make up just around 5% of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people, but their wealth and social standing give them outsize influence. The financial services sector — which generates about 20% of Hong Kong’s gross domestic product — virtually ground to a halt on Thursday, distracted by rumors coursing through WhatsApp chat groups and messages pinging back-and-forth among parents of kids who attend the city’s expensive international schools. In-person instruction had just recently resumed. Now at least three schools have shut down.

The expats feared not just for their health but for what the Hong Kong government might do. In late January, the city locked more than 10,000 people in their minuscule apartments in the Jordan district as hazmat-suited government workers marched in to test them. The city’s rulers wouldn’t do that to the rich… Or would they? 

The panic and anxiety began early Wednesday when news broke of a positive test result for a personal trainer at a fitness center in Sai Ying Pun, an up-and-coming neighborhood popular among expats. The next day, the government announced there were at least 17 confirmed cases and 30 preliminary cases connected to the trainer. Gyms had reopened less than a month ago.

On Wednesday, a friend of mine who works in the financial community was packing his bags after just being tested. One of his colleagues was a confirmed case and, because of that, my friend said he was told he’d end up quarantining for two weeks at a center in Penny’s Bay, near Disneyland, no matter what his results showed. There won’t be WiFi. Food will come in a polystyrene box received through a window. He’s brought his computer to do work — and as much good spirit as he can muster.

His wife, a photographer, had canceled her forthcoming shoots although she had tested negative. “It’s the stigma around us” and the worry that all these families could get “caught up in your mess – or the government’s, whichever way you want to call it,” she said to me. “When you’re spiraling, the government should have clear communication especially since the rules are so crazy.”

Hong Kong’s cases have recently been averaging 11 new infections per day — tiny compared to, say, New York City (3,300 on Tuesday). Yet it has struggled to return to normalcy, imposing stringent regulations amid periodic outbreaks. 

Meanwhile, residents returning to the city from abroad have to quarantine in hotels for 21 days in complete isolation. That’s at least a week longer than most other major cities with higher infection rates. The territory’s policies seem misaligned with and out-of-proportion to what’s happening in the community — and have led to a hesitation to get tested, a measure that has proved critical to controlling the virus elsewhere in the world.

Close contacts of those who test positive are shipped off to a government quarantine center with 3,500 spartan units. It sounds like a prison. My friend who’s headed there is more worried about his wife and kids and their dog than himself. But I worry about him. He recovered from cancer in 2016 and has been going in for regular tests for the last five years. A recent study from Penn Medicine found that “patients in remission have an overall increased risk of more severe disease compared to Covid-19 patients without cancer.”

No one quite knows how the government is defining  “close contacts.” And what would happen in sensitive situations, for example, if parents test positive but their children don’t. Expats wonder: Would Hong Kong separate us from our kids? 

The WhatsApp chats in the financial center aren’t about to stop.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Anjani Trivedi is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering industrial companies in Asia. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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