05 May 2009

Return of the Masks – Part 2 口罩回歸-下卷




The H1N1 virus has reached Hong Kong. We knew it was just a matter of time but the news managed to shock us just the same. Signs of a city on full alert are everywhere and feelings of an eerie déjà vu palpable. In a place as densely populated as Hong Kong, no amount of planning or emergency drills will prepare us for an all-out epidemic. Peculiar but somewhat understandable, the citys response to its first confirmed case of the swine flu provides a window on our collective psyche in the post-SARS era. The temptation to offer a few of my own observations is too great to resist.



Take one for the team. The symbolic first case of the deadly virus prompted the government to lock down the Metropark Hotel (維景酒店) in Wanchai, where the infected, a 24-year-old Mexican man, once stayed. During the SARS outbreak in 2003, Metroparks sister hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui rose to infamy after one of its tenants fell ill and infected 16 others. And you think lightning doesnt strike twice! Taking no chances this time around, police cordoned off a busy corner of Hennessy Road with crime scene tape, forcing nearly 350 hotel residents and staff into solitary confinement. Like caged animals, the captives are fed nameless food in nameless Styrofoam boxes three times a day, separated from the outside world by a pane of glass. But the governments heavy-handed approach to disease control has gone largely unchallenged. No explanation has been offered for what many would consider draconian measures or a case of over-reaction. After the SARS health scare, citizens have tacitly accepted the socialist ideology that the public good must trump individual rights.



Everybody loves drama. The hotel lockdown makes for sensational news reporting and a perfect setting for the next season of Survivor. A single confirmed case was enough for authorities to raise the public health alert to the highest “emergency” level. At a makeshift press conference, the Secretary for Education teased parents with the possibility of shutting down all schools for the week, only to drop the ill-thought-out idea a day later. As if to outdo the government in histrionics, the IFC and several other commercial buildings have installed body temperature sensors at every entrance, turning places of business into maximum security prisons. On my way to work this morning, I was accosted by a security guard at the lobby who drew a ray-gun out of nowhere and fired it right between my eyes. Before I had time to object, the non-contact infrared scanner had already registered my body temperature to one-tenth of a degree. So much for trying not to stoke fear or cause panic!


Behind every crisis lies an opportunity. In Central, the nerve-center of Hong Kong’s high finance, savvy business owners responded to the viral attack with swiftness and ingenuity. A Chinese medicine shop on Stanley Street cajoles passers-by with a ready dose of flu-fighting herbal tea (感冒茶). Local pharmacies on Queen’s Road Central now offer bundle discounts on hand sanitizers if purchased with antiseptic soaps. Under the escalators on the hilly Cochrane Street, opportunistic street vendors have given up fake handbags and switched to hawking face masks at $50 a box. They are the reason why Hong Kong is ranked number one among the world’s freest economies for 24 years straight.



Every man for himself. The face mask has made its way back into our closets, once again an integral part of our daily outfit. The practice of civilians wearing face masks as a health precaution originated from Japan, where school children are taught at a young age to put one on whenever they feel under the weather. Whereas the Japanese wear a mask out of consideration for others, Hong Kongers do so for a far less altruistic reason: to keep themselves from breathing in other people’s germs. In the face of a deadly viral attack, it’s every man for himself and better you than me.


Do unto others as they do unto us. People around the world are struggling to figure out whether all this hoopla about the swine flu outbreak is a colossal case of over-reaction. In the United States, for instance, the regular seasonal flu claims as many as 36,000 lives every year, whereas the H1N1 virus has so far managed to kill only a couple of people in Texas. Our stock market, ever the beacon of human rationality, shrugged off the outbreak with a week-long rally. Despite signs of the epidemic leveling off, the Chinese government continues to impose aggressive precautionary measures, suspending all flights into and out of Mexico, banning all pork products from the region and singling out North American visitors for quarantine. Mexican President Felipe Calderón lashed out at Beijing earlier this week for “acting out of ignorance” and “taking discriminatory measures” against his people, instantly turning a public health issue into a political hot potato. Not six years ago, China and other Asian governments leveled similar accusations against the West for its heavy-handed response to the SARS outbreak. When it comes to international relations, we dont hesitate to inflict on others the same harm they inflict on us, as victims and victimizers trade places in an endless cycle of injury and blame. That is, perhaps, the saddest part of the swine flu saga.

16 comments:

  1. just hope it will be over soon and people affected by the flu recover.

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  2. The hotel lockdown will expire this Friday, which will probably (and hopefully) end the chapter of swine flu in Hong Kong.

    Jason

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  3. This has really been an interesting week in the life of our city. My sympathy also goes to Metropark Hotel. This incident is another nail to its reputation. Its sister, Metropark Kowloon, figured prominently in the SARS outbreak of 2003. Now, it's Metropark Wan Chai. It must be in the name... Thank you again, Jason, for a highly-readable blog.

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  4. Yes, indeed! It has been sheer bad luck for China Travel International (CTI), which owns and operates four Metropark Hotels in Hong Kong, one in each of Wanchai, Causeway Bay, Mongkok and TST. What are the odds that two out of four locations got hit?! I was going to mention this tidbit but it got edited out in the end. I was certain, however, that someone among my readers would point it out and I was right!

    Jason

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  5. I walk past the Metropark everyday at lunchtime and the whole place is turning more and more into a circus by the day. I don't know what the poor people stuck in the hotel would have been thinking when they saw the Mexican guests being taken away in full body suits to their chartered flight...anger for being left behind or gratitude for being spared another round of humiliation.

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  6. I drove by the hotel the other day. It's a really bizarre scene. Only in Hong Kong!

    Jason

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  7. You must have jinxed yourself, being part of this ‘defining moment’, don’t think you would earn any envy from others?

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  8. Indeed, we should be careful what we ask for! But technically I missed it again because I was away in Bangkok when the first confirmed case was announced.

    Jason

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  9. Interesting article. I guess its better for the government to be overly cautious in order to prevent any blaming by its people later on. But funny that you mention about the same hotel chain getting hit by both SARS in 2003 and now swine flu. What are the chances?? I just saw the news that people in the hotel are having a party in there today. How fun. It must be a relief for them this afternoon when they are finally released from the hotel.

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  10. Phew... the drama is over. But when will this virus STOP? Watching the news is scary, as I am a flight attendant; flying to all different places, serving all different people from different parts of the world. I hope this world's drama of swine flu (Influenza A, H1N1 virus) ends soon.

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  11. The new confirmed cases in Japan have sparked renewed public health concerns in Hong Kong, although this time our government's response seems far less heavy-handed.

    Jason

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  12. 因為綠色…感覺超舒服…可以慢慢投放時間精神細心咀嚼內容都唔會眼攰~ Lovely~

    Sally

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  13. Facebook directed me to your profile and blog. Good to see someone writing about Hong Kong in another prospective. My friends' blogspot settings sometimes don't work on mobile. Will test your blog via my Window Mobile PPC, and let you know. It will be great if I can read your blog while traveling to and from work. Cheers.

    Phil

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  14. Good setting on blogspot. Can read your blog with no problem on my PPC. Looking forward to seeing more posting. Cheers.

    Phil

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  15. The final days of the lockdown ended quite nicely actually, so I was happy to see that. In the beginning stages, it's quite easy to mix up/incorporate discrimination with the isolation measures. It is too bad that this has introduced tension in the ties between China and Mexico. But in the end, I think the Hong Kong government has done a very nice job appeasing those people who have been locked up. The 5 star treatment is certainly a very nice compensation.

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  16. it is very desparate to live in a place like hk where everyone the youth or the old they never seem to be aware that they r impolite as to cough or sneeze heavily in front of your face, i have learned that one sneeze can go as far as 3 ft away and exists for 10 minutes, where am i to go if i cannot move away immediately from the contaminated spot in public transportation if i dont have a mask?? my method is i eat my cold and flu pills for children within one hour for prevention, to discover early will be easily treated as flu than most pplz who never care about it cos they usually think after a nap, it will be fine!!!

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