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How Hong Kong has had only FIVE Covid deaths - an expat's story

My name is Judith, and I'm a Brit living and working here in Hong Kong.

We have had 1162 cases to date. Just five poor people have lost their lives. 95% of confirmed cases have been discharged from hospital. That's despite being the fourth most densely populated region in the world with a population of 7.4 million and many shared borders with mainland China.

Every major infection cluster in Hong Kong has been related to an environment where masks were not worn. Because 98% of the population wear masks. It's just normal. And it has saved us.

I first read about the virus in Hong Kong mass media in early January and I worriedly watched its development on the news over the following weeks. On January 23rd the first case was confirmed in Hong Kong, the same day that Wuhan locked down, swiftly followed by restrictions within other provinces in mainland China.

Without prompting, friends and colleagues in Hong Kong shared information with me and gave me masks to wear. I had occasionally worn a mask before if I was recovering from an illness - as is expected in Hong Kong - but had an eye rolling mindset towards masks in general.

In the week after Chinese New Year I was shocked to see the endless lines of worried looking people queuing outside chemists to buy masks. I joked that people were more likely to catch the virus queuing up than to be protected by the masks themselves.

The following week we were instructed to work from home. Schools closed. Tourist attractions were shut down. Sports events were suspended until further notice. I started obsessively calculating the daily mortality rate after all the provinces reported their numbers on Chinese social media. And I stopped thinking that wearing masks was amusing.

As we braced for impact, the growth in cases was slow. The early actions taken by the Hong Kong government curtailed spread from the outset and their systematic trace, test, treat approach meant that there have been few cases of unknown relation.

The pro-active stance of the Hong Kong community played a huge part in keeping Hong Kong safe. With their experience of SARS, most residents did not need to be told to wear masks, wash their hands and stay in more. Businesses disinfected doors, escalators and lifts regularly, providing hand sanitiser at their entrances and requesting that masks were worn on entry. Banks and restaurants took our temperatures before we could enter, providing hand sanitisers and envelopes for our masks. And every day an app updated us with details as to where cases have been and their status, down to what plane seat they sat in and which malls they visited. 

Larger companies and government employees continued working from home from early February but many of us were back in our workplaces again after a week or so. Restaurants and shops stayed open. Public transport stayed fully operational. There were no drones telling us to leave the beach or to stop walking the dog. The government announced it was giving out free reusable masks to every single one of its residents.

Restrictions have been heightened at times in response to specific clusters and the second wave of imported cases arising from infected residents fleeing home. But we have never locked down.

At the beginning everyone was worried for me. I heard from people I’d not seen in years, full of care and concern. But as the virus began to spread around the globe others gradually fell silent.

I watched the spread. South Korea. Iran. Italy. All those people. All their memories. All of them gone. The grotesque prefaces repeatedly stated in mainstream media of the ‘underlying conditions’ and the ‘mainly attacks the elderly’. The horror I’d felt watching China’s daily rate’s rocketing rise was replicated as each country began to tumble.

And then it reached the UK. As cases started to grow I expected the UK government to react. But friends told me of walking straight through UK airport immigration without checks or questioning, while developing Asian countries would not allow them to fly there without being tested and quarantined. The UK public was told that if they felt ill they should stay at home for just seven days. No testing to see if they were sick. No tracing of people they had been in contact with. No testing to see if they were still infectious. And mass events were still allowed to go ahead. I remember Asian colleagues asking me in disbelief why that Stereophonics concert wasn’t cancelled. It was the stuff of nightmares.

I had already been warning family and friends in the UK of the dangers of the disease but I increased efforts, contacting more people, posting on social media and sending them masks. I told my parents repeatedly to protect themselves.

And then the UK government announced its intention to let the virus run through the population, albeit with some safeguards for the vulnerable. I watched open-mouthed as the PM told people to expect to lose loved ones and to remember to wash their hands. 

The UK government has been on the backfoot ever since. 

If I could offer one piece of advice to the UK it would be not to wait for the government to protect you but to take control yourselves. Wear masks. They should be mandatory. Masks cut transmission.

Galvanise your community to make and wear masks. Tell your supermarkets you will stop shopping there if they do not mask their staff. If you are an essential worker (or are now being requested to physically go back to work), refuse to work if your team members are not wearing masks. 

Stop saying ‘masks don’t protect me’. Stop saying ‘but the government said’. Stop saying ‘but I think I’ve already had it’ and think of your community.

Millions of people were crossing these borders throughout December through to February 8th when quarantine was imposed. There were daily flights and train connections to Wuhan, which is just 570 miles away from Hong Kong. But with masks, we've had five deaths. The UK has had over forty thousand.

You can take control. Just wear a mask.