COVID-19 SPECIAL

Coronavirus: Sense of crisis, scars from Sars help keep cases in Hong Kong lower than in Singapore

People wearing face masks are seen at Cheung Chau island in Hong Kong on April 12, 2020.
People wearing face masks are seen at Cheung Chau island in Hong Kong on April 12, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - Both Hong Kong and Singapore have been lauded globally for their handling of the Covid-19 crisis but the number of confirmed cases in Hong Kong has slowed to single digits, while it has soared in Singapore.

As of Monday (April 13), Singapore has more than 2,900 cases of coronavirus, while Hong Kong just passed the 1,000 mark at 1,009.

Even with the hiccups in terms of quarantine monitoring, what locals slam as slow and inadequate border control and social distancing measures, Hong Kong has so far managed to keep the numbers low, something observers say may be due to its people's awareness and sense of crisis.

Hong Kong University Professor Ben Cowling, who specialises in epidemiology and biostatistics, said: "The severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) experience has led to increased awareness in the local population and there have been a lot of voluntary changes in behaviour in addition to the government interventions, such as school closures."

Hong Kong schools have been shut since the Chinese New Year holidays, while full closure of schools in Singapore took effect on April 7.

Both cities tightened borders in late January, and in late March turned away visitors.

Dr Piotr Chlebicki of the Infectious Diseases Medical Clinic at Singapore's Mount Alvernia Hospital said the lower number Hong Kong has recorded could be due to the fact that "the wave of infections is smaller or the people in the wave are more cautious".

Singaporean Wee Lian Hee, a professor at the Baptist University who has lived in Hong Kong for 17 years, noted that Hong Kongers, left with scars from the 2003 Sars episode, have been quick to wear masks.

More importantly, Hong Kong residents are highly sensitive about their socio-political conditions and have little faith in the government, he said.

The Sars pandemic was the year when then Secretary for Security Regina Ip tried to pass national security laws that were later shelved.

This time, people had to fight the government ban on face masks triggered by months of protests.

 
 

Hong Kong's Court of Appeal ruled last week that a blanket government ban on face masks was unconstitutional.

The ruling came at a time when most residents wear masks to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

"Both then and now, Hong Kongers have been left to their own devices in resisting what they believe are erosions of their rights and freedoms.

"Driven by such sentiments, Hong Kongers are very likely to cooperate, and they did. The efforts to maintain hygiene, to share resources and all were not led by the government, but were all bottom-up efforts," said Professor Wee.

Executive Hannah Leung, who had to transit in Singapore in mid-March before flying back to Hong Kong, was shocked when people told her that there was no need to wear a mask.

"I was really surprised by the cavalier vibes in Singapore. Everyone seemed quite relaxed - you could barely tell there was a pandemic," she said.

"I think the people in Hong Kong have been quick to react. Due to Sars and general unrest, everyone seems to be on edge and taking extra precautions."

 
 

Asked if Hong Kong people are more socially conscious, hence the lower number of cases, Dr Jeremy Lim, a co-director of global health at the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said Singapore numbers, excluding the migrant worker cluster, "look decent".

Of the 2,918 cases recorded in Singapore, hundreds are linked to foreign worker dormitories.

Given that Covid-19 is more infectious than Sars, the key is "total adherence to social distancing measures", he said.

"A single lapse can result in clusters of dozens and even hundreds of cases.

"In both Hong Kong and Singapore, I believe the vast majority are cooperative and in both, there is a small recalcitrant and uncooperative minority. And this minority can jeopardise the entire national effort."

 
 

There are now fears in Hong Kong that the long Easter weekend, when crowds were spotted out and about on Repulse Bay beach, among other recreation spots, would lead to more local transmissions.

This comes as Hong Kong health officials admitted on Monday that fewer tests during the Easter holiday may have led to a drop in daily confirmed cases.

Said Dr Chlebicki: "If Hong Kong's numbers go up, no one can hide it because in one or two weeks' time, people will get sick and the hospitals will feel the burden."