Bats are a known harbor to a large variety of viruses. Humans rarely interact with bats directly (they are not a common delicacy or pet in China), but other wild animals, such as civets and pangolins, do. Seventeen years before the outbreak of COVID-19, a coronavirus already made the jump to humans, likely starting with a farmer in Guangdong province in Southern China.
In the case of SARS, it remained locally contained until a fishmonger from the Guangdong region was checked into a hospital in the province’s capital of Guangzhou on January 31, 2003. There, he infected 30 nurses and doctors.
Ten days later, China notified the WHO, but another ten days later, one of the infected doctors traveled to Hong Kong to attend a wedding ceremony. Within a day of his arrival, he felt sick and checked himself into a local hospital, where he died two weeks later.
Shortly after, other hotel guests checked themselves into hospitals in Vietnam, Canada and Singapore. Throughout March and April, SARS spread quickly in Hong Kong, infecting 1,700 people (80 percent of whom were infected directly or indirectly through the Guangzhou doctor), killing 300.
By May, Hong Kong’s number of newly infected cases dropped to the single digits, and by June the area was declared free of any infections. While some researchers infected themselves months later while handling the virus, the outbreak was declared contained in July 2003.
The SARS outbreak shaped Hong Kong forever. The two-week school closures remain vivid in the memory of all students; street markets were dramatically altered in its aftermath; bathrooms were remodelled and plumbing remade (over 300 people were infected in a single block of an apartment building as the virus spread through the pipes). Temperature scanners were installed at border crossings and fever clinics were set up, usually via a separate entrance to a hospital. Many employers, especially those servicing large numbers of customers, made masks available to employees.
2019: A New Virus
When Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang posted in a WeChat group for doctors on December 30, 2019, about SARS having returned, people in Hong Kong opened their ears wide and local media began reporting on it. When the Chinese CDC and the WHO declared in mid-January that there is no evidence this new virus could be transmitted from human to human, Hong Kong did not believe them. The local authorities confirmed their first case by January 23, 2020. On the same day, Wuhan was put under complete lockdown and the over 7 million people of Hong Kong knew the drill. They stocked up on masks, soap and hand sanitizer, cancelled their travel plans or returned from their trips to China. Blockchain meetups began to cancel their gatherings and venues closed their doors to talks and seminars.
Remembering the cover up by Chinese authorities around SARS in early 2003, residents assumed the worst. They were convinced the virus was already among them and every returnee from China was a potential carrier. With its unusually long incubation time and the possibilities of asymptomatic carriers, the “Wuhan Pneumonia,” as it was then referred to in Chinese and Hong Kongese media, was taken seriously.
Having only recently unionized themselves in response to the 2019 Hong Kong protests, concerned doctors and hospital staff began to strike for border closures. While the government initially rebuked such demands as “discriminatory,” the pressure from losing 40 percent of their medical staff during an emergency became too high; major land and sea crossings were closed and all those arriving had to put themselves into 14-day mandatory quarantine.
Even without any official orders and while authorities at the WHO and China CDC were still playing down the threat, local restaurants and streets became deserted and events were cancelled. The feared epidemic, however, did not materialize. One month after the first case was reported, and as the first cases were officially recovered, only 73 cases were known, most of which had been imported from China.
Moving Toward Greater Surveillance
As the disease began to spread in Europe, Hong Kongers let their guard down. They reappeared in malls and restaurants, congregated under the unusually clear skies in Hong Kong’s country parks and returned to their desks. Europe seemed far away.
Another month later, by March 25, the number of total cases had increased to 350; over 60 percent of cases were recorded just in the past ten days. Throughout March, Hong Kong authorities began to significantly restrict International travel. First, only arrivals from Italy, Korea and Hokkaido were instructed to be quarantined, then arrivals from parts of France and Germany, then the entire Schengen area, then U.S., Ireland and the U.K., finally the entire world.
As of now, non-residents are not allowed to enter or even transfer through Hong Kong airport. All ferry and cruise ship terminals have been shut. Those arriving from…