Contrary to the rest of the world, Hong Kong has managed to keep a low Covid-19 infection and death rate without a mandatory lockdown, but rather with a rigorous program of testing and tracing. Faina Derman, American expat and mother of two, tells us what’s it like living in Hong Kong during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Q. Can you tell us a little about you and your family?
A. My husband and I are New Yorkers and have been living in Hong Kong for over a decade now. We have two daughters, ages seven and eight, who were born here. Hong Kong is the only home they know. We still spend our summers and holidays in and around New York City. In fact, we were just there in early February. I work in the arts for a gallery called White Cube, and my husband is a historian who teaches modern European history at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
Q.When did the outbreak start in Hong Kong?
A. We first became aware and concerned about COVID-19 in late January. I was in Indonesia for work and got a text from my husband to please bring back surgical masks because Hong Kong was already running out. By early February, everyone was wearing masks outside, schools were closed, civil servants were working from home, and many businesses were operating on skeleton crews. Some shops shut down temporarily, banks closed many of their branches, and the new term “social distancing” was being widely used. Hong Kongers are very familiar with such viruses. SARS in 2003 devastated its economy and left many dead. Not surprisingly, a very high level of hygiene and awareness of public health in the midst of an outbreak are embedded in its culture.
Q.How did the government tackle the situation?
A.The government responded swiftly and handled this exceptionally well, I think. Schools were immediately shut down and social distancing put in place, and everyone was encouraged to wear masks. Civil servants worked from home, universities started teaching online, everyone was being tested, and fairly quickly borders with China were essentially closed. Hong Kong didn’t go on mandatory lockdown, but it controlled the spread by testing and investigating the origins of all cases and by practicing great hygiene. Until mid-March, Hong Kong had only about 100 cases in a city of seven million people!
After the virus started to ravage Europe and the U.S. and we experienced a second wave of infections, further measures were implemented. Anyone flying into Hong Kong was tested and quarantined and playgrounds and gyms were closed. Public gatherings in groups larger than four were banned. While restaurants didn’t close altogether, they were required to seat people far apart. Any shop or restaurant with a single case of COVID-19 would shut down for thorough disinfection and cleaning. The residential locations of any person who was diagnosed with the disease were shared online–though without mentioning the identity of the person–and everyone diagnosed was hospitalized. Now, the spread has significantly slowed down and we’ve had some days with no new cases. Even so, Hong Kongers are still being very cautious, every single person on the street is wearing a mask, and the government has not lifted or loosened the social distancing measures.
Q. Are your kids aware of what is going on?
A.Our kids are absolutely aware. We try to filter the information, as to not terrify them, but they are a bit anxious and ask us a lot about what’s going to happen. They haven’t been able to see their friends, and we have been enforcing rules of social distancing that are unfamiliar to them. We have already started talking about the fact that we may not be able to visit their grandparents in New York this summer. Since their ideas about what constitutes the exceptional often comes from fairy tales or adventure stories, they often compare their situation to the lives of characters in books about magic or adventure. Our older daughter has just read The Diary of Anne Frank and feels somewhat more able to relate to her experience of confinement than before. We’ve had to explain to them what our family and friends in other parts of the world are going through. As we have a family member who has been ill with the coronavirus, although thankfully with a mild case, they do know about it.
There is a podcast for kids we love called “Wow in the World,” and a recent episode did a very good job of briefly explaining COVID-19: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/815715527
Aside from all this, we have been trying to see the silver lining in togetherness. Fortunately, we have been able to go out on walks and even went camping recently. We watch movies and read more together. We’ve done so many crafts projects and learned to play new board games. We have spent so much time together as a family over the past three months–much more so than we would ordinarily be able to!
Q.How has your kids’ education been affected?
A.Our kids have been e-learning from home for three months now. The quality has improved as the school and the teachers have adjusted. What’s interesting is that as we have taken greater charge of their education, we have gotten to know more about where they excel and where they need more help. Since they are only in the first and third grade, they are not yet learning fully independently. We try to enrich their days with additional supplementary activities involving reading and writing, and we use other platforms to help with math. The Khan Academy has been extremely helpful. We feel that at their age, they will not miss out so long as they improve their numeracy and literacy and that they continue to love to learn.
Q. What has been the impact of the outbreak to your daily life?
A. Well, our life mostly happens in our two-bedroom apartment! We work on a slightly different schedule–more in the evenings because some of the mornings are spent teaching our kids. Overall though, I feel that we have adjusted. We are very lucky because we aren’t on a lockdown. Although we don’t really see many people, we are able to go out for walks, runs, and scoots with our kids. We go on some trips to some farther-away, less populated beaches on the weekend and spend at least an hour and usually more each day speaking to our parents and friends in the U.S. and Europe. We connect with those we love more, virtually and read more. While the restrictions will loosen at some point, I feel that our daily life will be impacted for a very long time. We are trying to see the positive aspects of what this allows us to do differently.
Q.What kind of precautions are you and your family taking?
A. We use all the standard precautions including wearing masks when outside, washing hands frequently, and using sanitizer outdoors. We don’t really see any friends, go out for meals, or use public transportation.
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the individual, not of Bébé Voyage, unless specifically indicated to that effect.
Here at Bébé Voyage, we have been trying to highlight individual family experiences with the coronavirus pandemic. We recognize that while the entire world is experiencing the virus, we are all experiencing it in different ways. We feel its important to share these stories with you so as to keep our community connected during these difficult times. If you enjoyed reading about living in Hong Kong during Covid-19, please check out these other articles from our blog or leave a comment below and let us know how your experience has been!