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Saturday, February 22, 2020, 08:42
Swept up in the malaise
By Kathy Zhang
Saturday, February 22, 2020, 08:42 By Kathy Zhang

Chan, a 64-year-old cleaner, sets out to clear refuse out of a 20-story building in Kowloon on Thursday. (XUE JINGQI / CHINA DAILY)

HONG KONG-For some, working from home to dodge the novel coronavirus is never an option; even if they face a greater risk of coming down with the deadly pathogen. 

Hong Kong’s thousands of street cleaners, mostly senior residents who are the heroes behind the curtains of the city’s clean streets, are one of those facing the dilemma. They face physical and mental stresses as the coronavirus spreads over the city. This week, the potentially fatal scourge claimed its second Hong Kong victim.

Chan has been a cleaner at a public housing estate in Choi Hung, Kowloon, for 29 years. When China Daily came calling, she was clearing refuse from a dark, damp room, stinking of rotting garbage.  

Wearing a mask and a pair of thick rubber gloves, the 64-year-old said she finds it difficult to shake her anxiety. She fears she will be infected with the deadly virus.

When the government and a number of companies asked employees to work from home, to control the spread of the disease, cleaners had no choice but to keep working.

Chan needs to take care of the refuse for an entire building, washing garbage bins, and sweeping floors and lifts.

The building, with 20 floors and at least 700 residential units, accommodates thousands of people. Chan and her colleagues need to deal with large amounts of domestic waste with their hands, including food scraps, every day.

“Working in that environment, I am extremely worried. If the disease strikes the building which I am responsible for, or spreads in this residential area, I cannot be spared.” Chan said.

In addition to the toxic working environment, age is another concern. Elderly people with weak immune systems are among those at greatest risk amid the disease outbreak. Most of the cleaners in Hong Kong are over 50. Some are in their 70s.

When more people in Hong Kong were diagnosed as infected, with two fatal cases linked to the coronavirus, Chan said she suffers greater “mental stress”.

Chan’s family is also concerned about her health. They often remind her to maintain personal hygiene and bought masks for her.

Moreover, stricter disinfection requirements put the city’s cleaners under a heavier burden.

Chan works eight hours every day, six days every week. In the old days, Chan didn’t need to wear a mask in the lobbies or lifts, but now she needs to wear one the whole day, no matter where she works.

“I feel exhausted and I can’t breathe easily.” Chan thinks the mask makes her work more difficult, though it does offer her some protection during a time of crisis.

According to the Environmental Services Contractors Alliance, members of the association hire 80 percent of the about 250,000 cleaners like Chan working at the forefront of the fight against the virus in Hong Kong.

Mask shortage

Chan’s colleague, a man surnamed Choi, in his 70s, uses only one mask a day, though he works eight hours, from morning to night. He can get one, sometime two, from the company every working day.

Choi, who lives alone, said he didn’t have time to wait in line for hours to buy masks and he can’t afford them, anyway. Now, a box of masks is HK$200 ($26) to HK$500 in Hong Kong, 10 times higher than before. 

Choi, a cleaner in his 70s. (XUE JINGQI / CHINA DAILY)

Addressing the issue, the government, in early February, announced plans to produce 700,000 more masks every month for Hong Kong’s cleaners. Some political parties and NGOs also lend a hand, donating masks to the city’s cleaners.

Compared with the imminent shortage in the wake of the epidemic, Yan Sui-han, convener of the Environmental Services Contractors Alliance, said the situation improved after the government’s move. But face masks are still in great demand as the usage amount doubles and it is unknown how long the epidemic will last. 

Chan and Choi carry on with their work. They have no other option. Both are praying the outbreak soon will be over.

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