As Australia dragged its feet on a full lockdown, Hong Kong ramped up its efforts to keep the coronavirus pandemic at bay.
Last week, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam suspended liquor licenses pointing out that “people get intimate when they get drunk.”
While Australia uses the army to help enforce a rule that sees returning Australians spend their 14-day quarantine in hotels, there are still lessons Scott Morrison could learn from Lam’s strategy to flatten the curve, especially since Hong Kong has been through all of this before.
Hong Kong British expat of 20 years, Genevieve Spizzirri, is an art teacher and photographer. COVID-19 is the third public health crisis Spizzirri and her husband, Pete, have faced in Hong Kong, with SARS in 2003 resulting in 299 deaths in Hong Kong alone, and Swine Flu in 2009. They live on the island with their two children, Evie aged 10 and Ollie aged 12.
Hong Kong, just breathing distance away from China, responded quickly to Wuhan’s December outbreak of COVID-19 due to its experience with SARS and Swine Flu.
Swift action by Hong Kong authorities put the city weeks ahead of the rest of the world in terms of living with self-distancing protocols, calling a state of emergency - which included the shut down of schools on January 25 just three days after the first two cases arrived on Hong Kong soil. Australian schools are still open today.
The Spizzirri family are now in their ninth week of school closures and social distancing.
Life over the past couple of months has been testing for them. Leading a cosmopolitan city lifestyle, they are living on top of each other in their three bedroom, high rise apartment in Tai Hang against the back-drop of a masked population and semi-functioning city. Hong Kong, a bustling city loved for its high energy, is now a shadow of its former self with quiet city streets and empty tourist spots. Many offices have been closed since the Chinese New Year, as businesses implemented working from home policies, and many restaurants, shops, public places, such as museums, gyms and swimming pools have closed.
“The containment measures for COVID-19 were announced at the start of the Chinese New Year Break,” Spizzirri says. “We knew on Saturday January 25 that children would not be returning to school for two weeks after the holiday. This time was extended and extended again.” There was hope for an April 20 reopening, Spizzirri adds, but with expats now rushing back from Europe this will probably change.
As a part-time art teacher at a British School, Spizzirri says: “The impact of school closures has been the hardest. I am still teaching a full timetable for my school students, and my children are on a home-school regime with a full timetable online. I am therefore doing double teaching.”
The lack of social interaction has been difficult for the children she explains. A situation made worse by the exodus of expats. Ironically many expats flew back to Europe and the US to feel safer.
“Not many of their friends are left here, so it’s hard on them,” she says. “There is no social contact, and the children are at home during school hours being taught live lessons online.” However, the training and online systems have been “excellent” she says. Despite being concerned about teaching a visual subject, Spizzirri says: “I’ve had to adapt – and adapt fast.”
“There are video introductions for each day, full lessons posted, and expectations adjusted according to their resources and location (several kids are abroad). Assemblies are recorded and there are Zoom lessons (like big Skypes with several kids) which are pastoral. The teachers are all online all day so that they can help and answer questions. Everything is turned in through the system.
“I’ve had to become a ‘YouTuber’ and learn lots of skills around videoing and presenting, and teaching with far fewer resources. Every piece of work I set, I get emails telling me that they don’t have pens/paints/paper at home!”
As for her own children, she says they do their best to work on their own, and then she helps them around her own teaching. Help is important, “if you want them to produce the quality of work they are capable of,” she says. “I see this from both sides – as a teacher, I know what my students are capable of and I know what little things I do in the course of a lesson to make that happen. Students are exhausted with screens so making more or longer videos doesn’t help.”
The lack of classroom banter is really taking its toll on Spizzirri. “Kids learn by bouncing ideas off one another, different approaches and discussion back and forth. Even with the best systems, lack of social contact is really hard. Last night Evie was begging for just one day of a normal day!”
Spizzirri says being on screens all day, she is really noticing the lack of physical activity showing too. “We are taking them on long hikes and out to do swims and runs but it doesn’t match their normal day-to-day exercise.”
As for parents, it’s been testing too. “I’ve had an awful lot of ups and downs. It comes and goes,” she says. “People everywhere are anxious and suspicious. There is little face-to-face contact because the masks are everywhere. Your family are sitting around a table, on screens for seven hours a day. All of us are affected by absent friends.”
Because schools have been closed for so long, many parents, particularly women, Spizziri says are unable to work or are becoming their children’s teachers. Others are doing both: “I have a friend who is a magazine editor, who has been working from home this whole time.” Others that can afford it are hiring tutors to help, she adds.
To try and beat the isolation blues, Spizzirri says they try to make weekends as fun and active as possible. “We take them out into the mountains, onto the water, and do plenty of outdoor exercise.”
However, despite the isolation, they know they are fortunate. Spizziri says it’s been horrid watching local small businesses suffer: “It’s been so hard on the family-run restaurants, the street food stalls, the tiny shops where tailors, stampmakers, newsagents and shoemakers work. Places usually heaving with tourists are empty.”
Another big concern, and the most frustrating to watch for Spizzirri, having lived through two other epidemics, is the confusion, misinformation, racism and damage being caused by social media.
“When SARS hit Hong Kong back in 2003, we read the newspapers and looked at the TV. Now ridiculous rumours on social media spark panic buying. I took pictures of the queues of people a mile long outside every pharmacy, trying to get masks which every news article says are pointless. A rumour on social media that all the toilet roll factories were going to make masks instead of loo roll sparked a global toilet paper panic.”
This hysteria didn’t exist before: “There was a lot more calm during SARS,” she says, despite it killing a higher percentage of those infected.
One of her biggest worries has been: “watching the problems slowly unfold in other countries. Knowing they don’t have your dress rehearsals to work from, nor your experienced and obedient people. Because of SARS, the Hong Kong people have immediately known what to do. They have automatically worked together for the common good, and taken great care from the start, leaving out the need for government intervention.”
Spizzirri has some insights to pass on given her experiences:
On homeschooling Spizzirri says: “even with the best support and systems, it is backbreaking for you and your kids’ mental health. Give everyone a break when you can, including yourself. Exercise and company (even if it’s on facetime) will keep you sane.”
To relax, Spizzirri says, read all the books you haven’t had time for: “revive jigsaw puzzles and games, and spend lots of time in the open air if you can. Do something creative each day...paint, print, organise your photos, journal, draw, bake, colour…”
As for communication, Spizzirri says: “Talk to each other calmly and don’t spend all your time looking at the news or social media. That is where the madness lies. Check in twice a day with a reliable source for your information. End of.”
Sprizzirri stresses “don’t give in to hysteria and don’t panic buy. It affects the vulnerable, causes price hikes and is just poor form. The best defence is hand washing and self-isolating. I can’t stress enough how important self-isolation is. It’s not about having your rights taken away, it’s about collectively working together to beat a virus. It can save yours, your friends and families’ lives. It may not be comfortable, it may be stressful, but we only have one try at this and it’s worth the effort…”
Most importantly Spizzirri says be kind to each other! “Protect the vulnerable in your community and revive the concept of neighbourliness. Help them shop, stay in contact, and offer your skills!”
Nichola Clark is an Australian-based writer and photographer who has spent the past 20 years playing with words and pictures for magazines, publications and businesses.