How Epidemics Shaped Hong Kong, Part II: The Scars of SARS – and Covid

This is the second of a two-part series. Read the first story here

The spring of 2003 was a terrifying time for Hong Kong. That February, a new virus known by scientists as SARS-CoV-1 began spreading among the guests of the Metropole Hotel. It would spark an epidemic that infected 1,755 people locally, 299 of whom died, with related outbreaks in Singapore, Taiwan, Canada and a number of other countries. An eerie silence descended on many parts of Hong Kong as nightclubs closed, schools were shuttered and shopping malls were emptied of their usual crowds. 

But not in the countryside. “I remember SARS – [there was a] huge queue for the bus from Wong Shek Pier after a day in Tai Long Wan area,” says conservationist and avid hiker Martin Williams. “Way more people than I’d seen before there.”

Before SARS, hiking in Hong Kong’s country parks had been a bit of a quirky pursuit enjoyed mainly by nature lovers and expat “hill walkers.” Most middle class families spent their leisure time in shopping malls and private clubs, not on rugged stone paths winding their way through the woods and meadows of Ma On Shan or Sunset Peak. But SARS made such indoor activities dangerous – and the fresh air of the countryside beckoned. 

“After SARS I noticed a big increase in the number of people on the trails,” S.K. Shum, founder of the Hong Kong Hiking Meetup group, told the South China Morning Post last year. “They realised the value of exercising outdoors. I think SARS is responsible for the popularity of hiking today.”

The road up Tai Mo Shan, a popular destination for outdoor activities. Photo by @_beyourself.photography

That wasn’t its only legacy. As with many of the epidemics that came before it, SARS reshaped Hong Kong in myriad ways, from health policy to urban planning to the way people behave in public. “SARS was not just something we had to deal with when it hit the city. It had an aftermath,” says Ying Kwok, who curated the Contagious Cities exhibition at Tai Kwun in 2019. Now, as the world reels from the pandemic caused by a related virus—SARS-CoV-2—it’s worth asking what imprint this latest illness will leave on the fabric of Hong Kong life. 

Ask any Hongkonger who lived through SARS what they remember most about the epidemic and it will likely be how people responded to it. “When you see a lot of people wearing masks in public when they’re not feeling well, this was definitely a practice that started after SARS,” says Kwok. Before 2003, Hong Kong did not have a reputation as a particularly salubrious place: there was litter everywhere, people spat in the street and serving chopsticks were uncommon. SARS changed all of that. Suddenly, there were hand sanitiser dispensers in every building lobby. Plastic sheets covered lift buttons for easier and more frequent cleaning. MTR employees began regularly wiping down escalator railings. 

There were other, less obvious changes, too. One of the biggest outbreaks of SARS occurred in Amoy Gardens, a densely-packed private housing estate in Kowloon Bay. After an infected man visited his brother in the middle of March, the number of cases on the estate kept multiplying until it reached 60 new cases per day, eventually peaking at more than 300. Nobody knew why it was spreading so quickly through this one housing estate. “What was terrifying about the Amoy Gardens cluster was its banality. It looked exactly like every other housing estate in Hong Kong,” wrote Karl Taro Greenfeld, then the editor of TIME magazine’s Asian edition, in The New Yorker last year. “One couldn’t help but think that what was happening there could happen anywhere.”

It turned out it really was something that could have happened anywhere. The rapid spread of SARS through Amoy Garden stemmed from a flaw in its box-standard design. “High concentrations of viral aerosols in building plumbing were drawn into apartment bathrooms through floor drains,” concluded a study published in the Journal of Environmental Health three years after the outbreak. “The virus-laden air was then transported by prevailing winds to adjacent buildings at Amoy Gardens, where additional exposures occurred.”

Like so many Hong Kong estates built in the 1980s and 90s, Amoy Gardens was densely built to the point where its buildings stifled air flow and blocked breezes that could have allowed the SARS virus to dissipate. That revelation led to a reform of Hong Kong’s building regulations, namely the creation of an air ventilation assessment system for all new construction. 

SARS led to other important changes, too, including reforms to hospital procedures that have helped them respond to the current pandemic. But not all the outcomes were positive. When SARS first hit, the government was slow to warn the public, releasing details about the Amoy Gardens outbreak only after residents banded together to launch a website, sosick.com, that detailed the rising number of cases. “We learned that officials had been hiding cases, moving patients out the back doors of hospitals while World Health Organization inspectors came in the front,” wrote Greenfeld. “We suspected that what we didn’t know was worse than what we did.”

That had important ramifications. “The failure of trust in authorities can lead to a real mess and social disorder, or at least some imbalance in the city,” says Kwok. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the SARS epidemic was followed by a massive rally against a proposed national security law – a protest that became an annual July 1st tradition, and one that served as inspiration for later episodes of upheaval like the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the anti-extradition protests of 2019. Hong Kong in 2003 felt like a city in a state of existential crisis. The parallels with the current pandemic can seem eerie. “When Covid hit Hong Hong, it was in chaos with so many different things happening at the same time,” says Kwok. “We were not just dealing with a pandemic.” 

Hong Kong’s experience with SARS may have helped it avoid the worst of Covid-19. Less deadly than its predecessor but far more easily transmissible, the new coronavirus has infected nearly 12,000 people in Hong Kong and killed 209 – a death rate far lower than in other countries, thanks no doubt to the quick response of ordinary Hongkongers, who began wearing masks and practising physical distancing well before it was required by the government.

Ironically, though, the memory of SARS and the trauma of recent political upheaval may have overshadowed the impact of Covid-19. “People have the memory of SARS and when they compare to that, it feels like nothing,” says Sampson Wong, an artist and academic who has researched the role of disease in urban life.

In many other parts of the world, the danger of Covid-19 has forced cities to rethink the spaces where people gather. New York City closed streets to vehicular traffic to allow thousands of restaurants to install tables outside, where transmission is drastically lower than indoors; Paris built hundreds of kilometres of new cycle lanes so people could get around the city while avoiding public transportation. Paris’ mayor Anne Hidalgo also used the pandemic as an opportunity to introduce the concept of the 15-Minute City, in which all essential services—schools, healthcare, grocery stores and the like—are available within a quarter-hour walk or cycle of every resident.

“There were a lot of discussions in other places about what innovative policies could be implemented,” says Wong. “But to be honest, I don’t see any such discussion in Hong Kong.” Even a campaign like Walk DVRC, a long-running push to give pedestrians more space in one of the most congested parts of Central, was not buoyed by the pandemic. Wong says the one time such discussions came to the fore was when indoor dining was banned for a time last summer, forcing many blue-collar workers to eat their takeaway lunches in the rain. “There was a bit of discussion about the lack of public space in Hong Kong. But there weren’t any visionary ideas,” he says.

Instead, Covid-19’s greatest legacy may be the end of public space as we know it. “What occupies people’s minds is how the government has used the regulations to prohibit public gatherings, to control political gatherings in the name of the pandemic,” says Wong. Restrictions have varied, but for much of the pandemic, Hong Kong has been perhaps the only place in the world where larger groups of people were allowed to gather indoors than outdoors.  

The Wilson Trail. Photo by Viola Gaskell for Zolima CityMag

So people did what they had done in 2003: they went hiking. “Right now in Hong Kong, local tourism is booming and people are always looking for new places to go to,” says Alicia Lui, project director at the WYNG Foundation, a charity that runs the TrailWatch hiking app. That’s a good thing—more people are discovering Hong Kong’s natural bounty—but it also comes with its share of problems. 

“Some of the country park trails are quite overused,” she says. “The Tourism Board is already putting money into Hong Kong as a hiking destination. Right now is a good opportunity to raise more awareness about nature education because of the interest in hiking and going to the country parks. It ties into protecting our environment and climate change.”

Less than two decades after SARS, it can be tempting to think that things have come full circle. But the story of Covid-19 is still playing out – and so is the story of how Hong Kong has been shaped by epidemics.

photos in slider: Viola Gaskell for Zolima CiTyMag, @jefthth, @_beyourself.photography

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