Published: 01:30, July 24, 2020 | Updated: 21:44, June 5, 2023
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HK versus Los Angeles: A tale of two cities amid COVID-19
By Christine Loh and Christopher Tang

While our lives have been upended in so many ways by COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, as natives of Hong Kong who now live in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, we believe there are certain aspects of the city its people should be proud of.

While the first COVID-19 cases confirmed in Hong Kong and California both took place in late January, Hong Kong has done much better in containing the virus, the third wave that has emerged this month notwithstanding. 

As we observe Hong Kong and LA from the outside in and inside out, Hong Kong people have a lot to be proud of. Their solidarity and preparedness were second to none. The third wave shows how hard it is to eliminate COVID-19 completely, but Hong Kong has much to teach others

Even after the Safer at Home order issued on March 19, the trend is worrisome in LA as we witness an increasing general trend and a surge. On July 13, California Governor Gavin Newsom rolled back the reopening that was issued in late May. Despite the third wave, Hong Kong’s numbers remained below 2,300 confirmed cases with 7.4 million residents, while Los Angeles County has over 164,000 cases with 10 million residents as of this writing. Why such a large difference? 

Hong Kong is much more densely populated than LA: 6,300 versus 800 per square kilometer. Also, Hong Kong is only 920 kilometers away from Wuhan — COVID-19’s epicenter in China — and until the end of January had daily trains and flights back and forth. Therefore, it should be more difficult for Hong Kong to keep the spread under control. Yet, this is not the case. What is Hong Kong’s successful recipe that LA and others could learn from?

First, Hong Kong has the advantage of experiencing SARS, the then-new severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus that emerged in 2003. The SARS outbreak was frightening. It infected more than 1,700 people and killed nearly 300 in Hong Kong. It turned out that while SARS was deadly, it did not transmit so easily. 

To put SARS under control, the authorities, hospitals and healthcare workers learned to test and trace the virus. The authorities were diligent and serious about fighting the disease in 2003. Hong Kong created a system that it could roll out quickly in the future. Thus, when a new infectious disease emerged in early January, the authorities were able to ramp up testing and conduct tracing very promptly.

Second, Hong Kong closed schools and public facilities relatively quickly, and asked people who could work from home to do so to contain the spread of infection. On Jan 25, the annual marathon slated for early February was canceled, as were other public events as part of its strict social-distancing measures. 

Thirdly, during SARS, public education was crucial. The Hong Kong community got used to washing hands frequently and wore face masks so as to protect themselves as well as others. With a new infection rising, ordinary folks in Hong Kong instantly knew what to do when they learned of an outbreak in Wuhan in January. Almost immediately people began wearing masks even though the authorities didn’t think it necessary at the time, especially when masks were in short supply for medical workers. At the time, the World Health Organization didn’t see wearing face masks as essential — a view it subsequently reversed in early April. 

Community action made a major difference because COVID-19 is highly contagious and carriers could be asymptomatic. The self-imposed wearing of masks in Hong Kong helped to minimize its spread. Studies by Hong Kong universities showed mask-wearing made a difference — even do-it-yourself face coverings have a 50 to 70 percent effectiveness.  

The majority of Hong Kong residents are self-disciplined. They have no issue with wearing masks. People also took other precautions — they avoided crowded places, applied hand sanitizer or rubbing alcohol after contact; and since Hong Kong is a high-rise city, property managers cleaned elevator buttons on an hourly basis. 

The United States was slow to react to COVID-19. In LA, the LA Marathon on March 8 went ahead, and LA schools didn’t close until a week later. The Safer at Home order only became effective on March 19. 

Few Angelenos took precautions. To be fair, the WHO didn’t reverse its advice on face masks until early April, at which time, LA mandated residents to cover their face when they went out on essential errands, like visiting grocery stores and pharmacies, and asked people to practice physical distancing of at least 6 feet (1.8 meters). 

By mid-May, LA had issued a second, broader mandate requiring face coverings when going outside for any tasks. This was deemed necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 and to eventually reopen the city. The reopening and the inconsistent mask-wearing compliance in LA and elsewhere in the US have been linked to the current surge in the number of new COVID-19 cases in July. 

The experience of SARS alerted Hong Kong people to adopt preventive practices not only for self-protection but also to keep family and community safe. A legal mandate was unnecessary. In LA, and indeed most of the country, a mandate was essential to focus people’s attention even though it was impossible to enforce. 

In the US, individualistic concerns dominate all others. Many people, especially the young, feel the stay-at-home measures infringed their rights, and should be voluntary. Some feel penalized because COVID-19 supposedly mainly affected the elderly and people with illnesses, so those groups should have to stay home, not others. This is the reason why the US continues to struggle with containing the disease. Experts say the US is still on its first phase as it still hasn’t come to grips with containment.

The Hong Kong authorities also did something unique. The Innovation and Technology Bureau funded the Hong Kong Research Institute of Textiles and Apparel to develop and produce an effective, reusable, sustainable mask since mask-wearing would continue for the foreseeable future on a massive scale. The result is the birth of CuMask, which has many embedded innovative technologies. It is now a “hot” licensing invention sought after by other places. CuMask complies with rigorous testing performed overseas.  

In LA, shortages of personal protective equipment and test kits persist. At the national level, judging from its management of the Strategic National Stockpile to its inaction in ramping up domestic production of PPE, Washington’s strategy has been chaotic and disastrous. The consequences of this poor planning resulted in prolonged shortages of PPE, especially N95 masks, which had been linked to over 600 deaths and 71,000 infections among US healthcare workers as reported in June, as well as over 146,000 COVID-19 deaths across the country as of this writing.  

As we observe Hong Kong and LA from the outside in and inside out, Hong Kong people have a lot to be proud of. Their solidarity and preparedness were second to none. The third wave shows how hard it is to eliminate COVID-19 completely, but Hong Kong has much to teach others.

Christine Loh is formerly an undersecretary for environment and a legislative councilor. She is also chief development strategist at the Institute for the Environment at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

Christopher S. Tang is a university distinguished professor and Edward W. Carter chair in business administration at the UCLA Anderson School of Management.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.