SFM #11: Hong Kong. Views From Under a Mask

By Robert Wu for his family and friends

The following are my observations of Hong Kong under siege by SARS:

  • The first we heard of this mysterious disease is when Guangzhou ran out of vinegar.  Folks there wrongly believed vapor from boiling vinegar would sterilize homes against an unknown disease.  Speculators bought vinegar at US$1 a bottle in Hong Kong and sold them for several dollars in Guangzhou.
  • Business routines are changed.  People do not shake hands.  Business travels are curtailed as Hong Kong business people are advised to stay away.  Some spouses of frequent business travelers are grateful for this.
  • Three salesmen of my former company visited an engineer of a client company on one Friday.  The client company informed them on Monday that the engineer fell ill with SARS.  My former company closed the HK office for two days to thoroughly clean and sanitize the place.  Unfortunately, the client engineer died before the end of the week.
  • Restaurant business in Hong Kong dropped to almost nothing in late March and stayed that way for a month.  Today is a public holiday celebrating Buddha’s birthday.  Restaurants were filled and customers waited in lines.  There was an almost audible sigh of relief.
  • The subway (MTR) trains were always noisy with boisterous cell phone talkers.  In late April, 80% of the riders wore masks and refrained from talking loudly.  The riders were solemn and the trains were ghostly quiet.  Yesterday, only 40% wore masks, reflecting a belief that SARS is coming under control in HK.  Unfortunately, riders are yelling into their cell phones again.
  • I had an urge to clear my throat after I sat down on a train one day.  I exercised superhuman control to keep from coughing.  I fidgeted for an eternity, dashed out at the next station and quietly cleared my throat after the platform emptied.
  • With masks covering their mouths and noses, some people who habitually pick their noses on MTR trains found it difficult to do so.  This may be the only positive aspect of SARS.
  • The managers of our apartment complex wanted to hire more cleaners to sterilize the corridors of all floors during regular hours.  With a little operations analysis, I convinced them that it would be more cost effective to concentrate on cleaning common areas like lobbies and elevators, and to continue cleaning into early evening hours when people return home from possibly contaminated places.
  • Hong Kongers have an ungracious habit of hiding from news TV cameras like giggling children.  But when everybody is wearing masks and unrecognizable, HKers face TV cameras with self-confidence and poise.
  • Surgical or N95 masks are recommended for filtering out SARS virus.  Wearing such restrictive mask all day for shopping in malls can be a little inconvenient, but wearing one while doing heavy work can be suffocating:  The chest would feel pressed by millstones, breathing becomes labored, heartbeat accelerates, and limbs feel weak.  I sympathize workers who need to wear masks and do hard physical work all day in hot weather.
  • Sally and I hiked the country park trails behind our apartment complex on some beautiful April days. We removed our masks and enjoyed the tinglingly clean mountain air.
  • Due to the ferocious contagiousness of SARS, patients are quarantined from visitors and deceased patients are cremated immediately.  Family members do not get to see the patients before or after their deaths.  Grieving loved ones find the departure sudden and impersonal, and dying patients are denied family support.  With the installation of videophones in hospitals, patients and loved ones are provided some comfort.
  • The professionalism of the medical and support staffs of HK hospitals is one bright spot.  The doctors, nurses, nurses’ aids, cleaners, and administrative staffs of the public hospitals fought SARS knowing the personal risks involved.  Nearly one quarter of all SARS patients in HK are hospital staff members infected while performing their duties.  As one cleaner quietly said, “The work has to be done and it is our responsibility”. They express their fear of SARS, but they go into the hospitals every day for two months to perform their duties.  They make us proud and grateful.
  • The staffs in HK hospitals stand out against some unprofessional behaviors in some other places.  I was shocked by the mutiny of the medical staff of one hospital in Taiwan, and dismayed by the desertion of individual professionals on the mainland.
  • Sally and I made reservations to visit Hanoi in March and New Zealand in April.  They had to be cancelled.  I also planned to visit sites along the Great Wall in May and June, but traveling in China now may not be advisable.  Now that many countries do not welcome Hong Kongers, we may as well spend our money at home and help support Hong Kong’s economy.

Author: Robert Wu

Two engineering and one business degrees, all from NYU. National president of Organization of Chinese Americans, two terms. General manager of a multinational corporation in China. Retired but still active. Married to a wonderful wife, one son & one daughter.

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