The first place to indicate that the virus had spread beyond the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong had phenomenal success in bringing the outbreak on its territory under control, and did so without resorting to a total lockdown. Testing, high-tech monitoring, prompt treatment for victims… Hong Kong’s success in dealing with Covid-19 has helped banish the of past failures.
At the heart of South East Asia, Hong Kong is something of a canary-in-the-coalmine when it comes to modern epidemics. Ravaged by the H3N2 outbreak in 1968, the epicenter of the bird-flu epidemic in 2002 with 50,000 cases, and the second most effected territory after China during Sars, it has developed unrivalled viral expertise and response mechanisms, which has proved extremely useful in 2020.
By January 10th Hong Kong had already identified 38 cases of Covid-19, a first hint at how contagious the disease really was, at a time when Beijing was sticking to the line that no case of Covid-19 had been reported outside of Wuhan (59 official cases at the time). This vigilance proved to be an effective early-warning system for 7.5 million Hong-Kongers, who quickly and prior any pressure from the authorities, began taking extra precautions, such as wearing masks in public. An exemplary attitude which, according to some estimates, reduced the potential rate of infection by 90%.
Schools close and people begin working from home
On January 27th, although the number of cases reported in Hong Kong remained small, all schools and creches were closed and people who could were encouraged to start working from home. In addition, an information campaign was launched, designed to advise the populace on how best to protect themselves from Covid-19.
All arrivals from the mainland were obliged to spend 14 days in quarantine at their domicile, a hotel or at a center provided by the government for the purpose. This was no easy decision for the autonomous region governed by Carrie Lam, since around 50 million Chinese cross the frontier each year. But it was a necessary one, with the public clamoring for the border to be completely sealed off.
In response to the developing global pandemic, additional measures were taken in March, with Hong Kong being shut to all non-resident foreigners, the cavalier attitude of some of Hong Kong’s extensive ex-pat community to the wearing of masks having causing a stir, even if the number of new contaminations had always remained low. The peak of contamination in Hong Kong was reached on April 1st.
Patients treated as early as possible
Hong Kong is a city where rich and poor live shoulder to shoulder, and the country has a system of healthcare for all that is practically free and has, during the coronavirus emergency, proven capable of shouldering the load. An extensive testing programme was put in place, with 96,709 tests carried out between January and mid-March. The quarantine protocol for those entering the country was extended and broadened to include the use of e-bracelets linked to an app entitled Stay Home Safe, which monitors the movements of people under confinement.
This proved to be a highly effective tool and allowed the authorities to stay one step ahead of the outbreak and prevent new clusters from forming. In addition, rather than see the hospitals having to deal with a large number of advanced cases of Covid-19, the government decided that each patient should be admitted to hospital as soon as possible so that the virus could be treated at an early stage.
Hong Kong’s doctors have tested, with moderate success, a combination of three antiviral drugs on patients: the anti-HIV drug Lopinavir/Ritonavir, the adenovirus treatment Ribavirine and multiple sclerosis medication Interferon beta-1b. A study by Hong Kong doctors, published in The Lancet, showed that, on average, Covid-19 patients felt better after four days and exhibited no side effects. In addition, those treated with this cocktail test negative for the coronavirus after an average of seven days, as against 12 when receiving Lopinavir/Ritonavir alone. Promising results, which underline the importance of acting early when confronted with a disease whose symptoms can take time to manifest. A larger sample size will, of course, be needed to confirm the efficacy of this treatment.
Victory is declared
An anticipated second wave of the coronavirus turned out to be a trickle, limited to 13 new cases by mid-April, of which 10 were imported. This means that Hong Kong can, save in the unlikely event of a third wave, effectively declare victory, and we can say that the metropolis has broken with its heavy history where viral outbreaks are concerned.
With only four deaths linked to Covid-19, as against 300 during Sars in 2013 (a disease, it should be noted, which was much less contagious), Hong Kong’s success in curbing the spread of the virus has been nothing short of amazing.
But despite this public-health victory, dark clouds remain on the horizon, in the shape of political pressure which China continues to assert on the autonomous region, which sparked last year’s anti-extradition protests, not to mention the ever-present threat from new diseases, such as Hepatitus E, which has already been contracted by scores of Hong-Kongers in recent months.