Comparative Coping—A Hong Kong Perspective 

Hong Kong, with a population equivalent to Toronto and Montreal combined, has suffered 20-times fewer deaths in the pandemic. iStock photo

Robin V. Sears  

The woman in Hong Kong was less than five feet tall, dressed in the dark formal Anglophile style of women of her generation, rushing toward me in the stream of early morning passengers, navigating the vast underground network of transit corridors. Absorbed in my cellphone, it was only when she was firmly parked in front of me looking up, that I stopped in surprise. “Sir, you may not have noticed that your mask has slipped from your nose…” It was gently and graciously delivered. Stunned, I snatched at my wayward mask and sputtered an apology. “Have a good day, sir” and then she was lost in the crowds.

Later, I smiled at what the encounter revealed about the difference between Canada and Hong Kong’s struggle with social rituals in a pandemic. She was doing me a favour, saving me from the much less forgiving public safety officials parked at every corner. She saw it as a duty and had no fear of my reaction. Not the experience one would have, even now, on either the Toronto subway or the Montreal Métro.

It was iconic of the behavioural gap between communities that have known public health crises at least every decade and Canada’s indulgent complacency. Taking care of yourself, your family and your community in places where life is less predictable are not government responsibilities—they’re yours. 

When our apartment building in Hong Kong was suddenly locked down one night—one of our fellow tenants had tested positive for COVID-19—and surrounded by police and public health officials, we all trooped off to emergency testing, and returned to quarantine until our results returned. We shared wry stories and smiles in the elevators later. I heard not one complaint.

No one trusts the Beijing-backed government of Hong Kong to deliver clean air or affordable housing, let alone freedom of expression anymore. The leadership have indulged in disgraceful conduct almost weekly. At the front line in a testing or vaccine centre, however, every public employee is firm, polite and determinedly professional. Even the police, shuffling in the background, take their orders from these impressive young men and women struggling daily at the frontline of the pandemic battle. The regime they deliver is tough: three weeks in a hotel room on arrival, regular compulsory testing, invasive contact tracing on every cellphone, and Plexiglas dividers between desks and tables in offices and restaurants.

The outcome: Hong Kong, a city of 7.5 million, perched on the lip of mainland China, with among the world’s largest cargo airports, container terminals and flows of marine traffic; a city whose geography should have made it one of the most porous and endangered in the world, has had fewer than 220 COVID deaths in nearly 16 months. That is less than some big-city neighbourhoods in Canada. Greater Montreal and Toronto, together roughly the same size as Hong Kong, have suffered more than 20 times the number of fatalities.

In other words, if you lived in either of Canada’s two largest cities, you had a 20-times-greater risk of dying of COVID than in Asia’s most international city.

There are many lessons in these dramatically different experiences and outcomes before the next one comes, above all a community engaged in and educated about the requirements of public health is the foundation for containment. Not supportive legislation, more money or better trained and equipped public health officials, though all those things are essentials, too. But if your citizens don’t get it—that there are not opinions about masks, tests, and isolation, there are only facts—nothing will stop a pandemic. 

Publicly available granular data, shared across every government, business and sector of the nation, is the second foundation. We need to assemble data according to the same rules, bullet-proof it with independent eyes and update it online several times a day—and hoarding, or ‘editing’ are not on. Hong Kong’s contact tracing and local lockdowns are based on tens of thousands of data points collected 24/7. Our data sets were often laughably imprecise and contradictory.

Also, everyone in a role that requires them to communicate to the public needs to be able to do that clearly, transparently, persuasively and authentically. That means coaching, rehearsal and assessment, before the demands of real-time crisis communications kick in. Some Canadian officials could not communicate the time of day believably. Those that can’t rise to the level of Bonnie Henry or Dr. Anthony Fauci should not be in front of any microphone or camera. Their collectively shambolic performance increased risks, anxiety and maybe even caseloads. 

Hong Kong officials were not great communicators either, so the community had to develop its own sources, networks and telephone trees. It was not ideal, but Canada’s communications disasters were worse. As one minister shared with me, they awoke one morning to see full-page print ads from two different government agencies offering completely contradictory advice and caution to readers. Unacceptable.

Finally, you have scientific, medical and academic advisers for a reason; to get the best advice from as many sources as possible. Those advisers have an obligation to reach consensus before they weight in and during this crisis, they often didn’t. But the politicians have a higher obligation. Yes, they are necessarily the “deciders”, and yes, they have to weigh wider factors than public health alone. But if they receive a consensus recommendation from their tables of advisers and reject it, they must explain themselves rather than abuse those professionals by claiming to follow their advice when they are not. In Hong Kong, the entire health sector demanded early on that the government close all land crossings. The local government, always shaking in dread at Beijing’s reaction, refused, claiming its advisers did not think it necessary. Thousands of health care professionals went on a one-day strike. The government, deeply humiliated, immediately closed the borders. 

We have much to be proud of in our weathering these brutal months. We also need to find new ways of making the next pandemic less brutal.  

Veteran political strategist and Policy Contributing Writer Robin V. Sears lived and worked in Tokyo as Ontario’s Agent General for Asia for six years, and later worked in the private sector in Hong Kong for a further six years.