16 Mar The Coronavirus in Hong Kong: How We Are Fighting
Welcome to Hong Kong, where we have been dealing with the coronavirus since the end of January. Hong Kong has been able to fight back the contagion, even though our government lagged in its initial response, and even though we are right on the border with China, where it all began. Along with Taiwan and Singapore, we have held steady with the lowest numbers of cases in Asia (only about 130 in a city of 7.5 million).
This is a public service post for all our former guests and friends living in North America and Europe. You are going through what we went through here in February. So in a real sense, we represent what your future outcome can be, if you take responsible steps now. Since we’re about six weeks ahead of the US on the virus timeline, we would like to offer a few suggestions about how you can protect each other, based on what Hong Kongers have been doing.
First and most importantly, please don’t panic! But do be ready to (at least temporarily) to avoid large groups and social occasions, for the benefit of all. And be prepared to get very, very OCD (obsessive-compulsive) about your personal habits. While the following “to-do” checklist may seem trivial and even bothersome, if everyone together takes these small steps, they do work. Hong Kong is proving this.
Two major areas of concern are things you touch, and things you breathe:
Things you touch
Be mindful of what you do with your hands. Basically you don’t want to touch ANYTHING with your hands that’s been handled by others, and if you have to touch something like a pen, an ATM screen, a door handle, whatever, make it a habit to IMMEDIATELY clean your hands by washing them, or if that’s not possible, then with hand sanitizer. Learn how to open doors with your body or an elbow or a foot. Just be aware of what you put your hands on and try not to touch anything.
Wash your hands several times a day, and not just at home! Get into the habit of doing hand washing “pit stops” whenever you spot a clean public restroom. Here at Little Adventures in Hong Kong we are incorporating hand-washing stops into all our walking tours. Soap has been proven to kill the virus.
Here are some things that we now bring along whenever we leave the house:
1. A pen (so you don’t have to sign anything with a communal pen, which could harbor germs. It also works for pressing elevator buttons)
2. A small squeeze bottle of alcohol-based sanitizer (it should be 70% alcohol, read the ingredient fine print before purchase and do NOT rely on sanitizer that is made with other chemicals because it isn’t as effective–some brands of hand sanitizer are non-alcohol. If the label says “flammable” you have the good stuff.)
3. Alcohol prep pads that come in sealed foil packets OR a small package of disinfecting wipes. These are handy to wipe down your smartphone from time to time, to make sure it’s clean. We also use the alcohol pads to clean your computer keyboard, and your KEYS (the virus lingers on metaI). Do check the label to make sure they contain alcohol or the proper disinfectant. We have an excellent medical university in Hong Kong that’s prepared lots of tips on how to effectively decontaminate yourself and your home, and with what products–read here.
Some of the things that the HKU medical school recommends are practical tips that you might not think of. For instance, if you wear glasses, wash them thoroughly AS YOU WASH YOUR HANDS. Glasses are usually made of plastics and that surface can harbor virus germs too. If you wash them as you wash your hands, you won’t risk re-contaminating yourself. Also–this may be a good time to take up the Asian cultural practice of not wearing your shoes in the house. Leave them outside, or in a space near the door, and occasionally disinfect the soles with a bleach/water mixture.
4. A cotton glove. We have seen many Hong Kong cashiers wearing latex gloves, but they can be difficult for many people to wear for long periods of time, or in warm weather. After some experimenting, we decided it is easier to keep our bare hands clean by frequent washing and hand sanitizer, rather than a glove. However, we do carry a cotton glove around for things like opening doors, grabbing railings on busses or public transport, and pushing a supermarket cart.
Things that you Breathe
We’ve read many experts who think that wearing surgical masks is not useful in inhibiting virus spread. In Hong Kong, our top scientists and virologists disagree. Our city’s experience with SARS taught us that this is the single most important practice that we can do together to protect each other. We think the graph from the Financial Times at the top of this page proves our point. Italians didn’t put on masks. Hong Kongers, Singaporeans, Taiwanese and most of the rest of Asia are doing it. Here in HK about 99 percent of people are wearing them in public places. They have been a big weapon in “flattening the curve” of virus spread.
The experts are saying that “masks don’t work”. It depends on how you define “work”. It’s true no mask will protect you from 100% of virus particles. But the point of a mask is not to protect yourself–it is a community effort to protect OTHERS. It has a multiplier effect. Masks cut down the amount of droplets that you send out into the air, and they significantly cut down the droplets you inhale. This has a tremendous effect on controlling contagion IF the majority of people cooperate and do it TOGETHER. This virus is spread by carriers who don’t have any symptoms, so you have to visualize yourself as a potential carrier and wear it even if you are not feeling ill.
Most of us in Hong Kong are wearing regular 3-ply surgical masks. The N95 masks do filter more, however they are harder to wear for long periods of time. The point, again, is that you are not protecting yourself as much as contributing to a community effort to protect everyone.
Please consider taking up mask-wearing in crowded, closed public places. I hope it catches on in large, crowded cities like New York and London. Personally we would not go on ANY public transport without a surgical mask right now.
Some Important Mask Tips
When you take off the surgical mask, don’t touch the outside, only handle it by the side loops. It’s contaminated! Keep a little plastic baggie on hand to put the mask in after you use it. And DON’T RE-USE a surgical mask–use a new one every time.
Changing small habits can have big results
Both the obsessive hand hygiene and the mask wearing sound–and at first feel–ridiculous. But it is the major reason why Hong Kong people are winning our fight against coronavirus.
A big advantage we have had in Hong Kong is that we have a decent public hospital and health care system with superb experienced doctors. Anyone can go into the ER here, pay around $20 USD, and get checked and treated and hospitalized if need be. What’s more Hong Kong has a robust center for disease control that is transparent (we know about EVERY new case as it is discovered, and how it was introduced, and where the sick people have been living and visiting).
This may not be the case where you live. But even if your country’s health care system is not all it could be, know that you can make an enormous difference by sticking to a program of personal hygiene, and following these practices. They are working for us in Hong Kong.