In Hong Kong, the coronavirus strikes a wounded city

People queue up for free surgical masks from a convenience store in Hong Kong on Feb 7, 2020.
People queue up for free surgical masks from a convenience store in Hong Kong on Feb 7, 2020.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - Hong Kong has suffered through months of political protests. Its economy is shrinking. Mistrust divides its people from its leaders. Locals and expatriates alike already talk openly about leaving.

Now the coronavirus - which originated in December from the central Chinese city of Wuhan - is dealing the Asian financial capital another devastating blow. Airlines are cutting service, isolating an international city from the rest of the world. Schools are closed. Panicked residents are hoarding rice, face masks and - in the latest run - toilet paper.

In the air runs a new emotion for a city where the glimmering skyline once seemed to promise riches and opportunity: fear.

"We don't know when it will end or how much worse it will get," said Ms Amber Suen, a flight attendant with Cathay Pacific, the beleaguered Hong Kong airline that Wednesday (Feb 5) asked its 27,000 employees to take three-week unpaid furloughs to save money.

Ms Suen endured Hong Kong's earlier problems, like the outbreak 17 years ago of Sars, which killed almost 300 people and briefly knocked the territory's economy off track. This time feels different, she said, as Hong Kong endures political, economic and social crises all at once.

"During Sars," she said, "people were still working together."

The new coronavirus, which has killed hundreds and sickened thousands in mainland China, has been much less prevalent in Hong Kong. One person has died and at least 26 have been infected, mostly while travelling in the mainland. Its hospitals are respected around the world, and its grocery stores remain largely well stocked.

The world is not drawing a distinction, however, in part because the city has tightened but not fully closed the border with the mainland. As a result, people in this global city are feeling increasingly cut off.

The multinational companies that helped make this city global are restricting travel there. Some are advising or requiring returning employees to quarantine themselves. And getting to Hong Kong is becoming increasingly difficult: Virgin Australia on Thursday joined United Airlines and American Airlines in cutting service.

Italy has suspended flights from Hong Kong, while the Philippines and Taiwan are requiring arrivals to go into quarantine. Even the city's Filipino domestic workers, a mostly female group of 200,000 who toil inside Hong Kong's tiny apartments to support their families back home, were told this week that they would need to undergo a 14-day quarantine if they returned to the Philippines.

This week the organisers of Art Basel Hong Kong, a major event in the arts world, said they would cancel the event.

 
 
 

While the global reaction may be extreme, the threat can feel real in such a densely populated city, where apartments and offices are stacked on top of each other, sometimes 40 stories or more.

On Wednesday, managers of a Hong Kong skyscraper called Kowloon Commerce Centre said someone who worked there had been diagnosed with the coronavirus. The building's other tenants include Bank of America, Swiss bank UBS, phone giant China Mobile and international shipping companies.

The sudden isolation only adds to the economic pain. For months, anti-government protesters have filled the streets to demand that the pro-Beijing government give them greater say in how the city is run and to protest the Chinese government's growing sway. Violence and tear gas already scared away many mainland tourists and business visitors.

Jewellers, luxury retailers and cosmetics shops that catered to mainland tourists are closing outlets. Restaurants have closed, and hotel rooms are vacant. Unsurprisingly, unemployment is on the rise.

 

"This is a post-protest, frying-pan-into-the-fire situation for a lot of Hong Kong retailers," said Mr Robert Cooper, founder of Enoteca, a restaurant catering to the business community.

Most of his tables are empty. Mr Cooper said he was running a skeleton staff after firing 30 per cent of his chefs and waiters. In January, he was forced to shut down Iberico & Co, another restaurant, after months of empty tables and lost revenue.

"Months of protests and the fear of getting caught in tear gas has had an impact on business," said Mr Cooper, who got his start in Hong Kong as a waiter 26 years ago. "Now the virus bites into our other businesses."

Other factors make Hong Kong more vulnerable than it was during Sars 17 years ago. China back then was still developing and growing by double digits, and it needed Hong Kong's money and expertise. Today, China's growth has matured, and many companies no longer use Hong Kong as a gateway into the world's No. 2 economy.

More fundamentally, many Hong Kong people no longer have faith in their government to make the right decisions.

"We've been double-hit by social unrest and a government that is just disappointing," said Professor Paul Yip, a director at Hong Kong University. "They don't know how to deal with unrest, and they don't know how to handle the virus."

Citizens had already grown nervous about their government. Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous Chinese region with an independent legal system and guaranteed individual rights, but its top leadership is selected by a process controlled by Beijing.

Many in Hong Kong fear the growing power of the mainland Chinese government in the city's affairs, especially after the high-profile disappearances of people wanted or disliked by Beijing, with little reaction from city officials.

The tensions boiled over late last spring, when Hong Kong's leaders tried to pass legislation that would allow extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China, where the justice system is controlled by the Communist Party.

 
 

City leaders backed down, but by then, clashes between demonstrators and police had become increasingly violent. Hong Kong's population became frustrated as city officials dismissed evidence of excessive police violence. Angry voters dealt their leaders a sharp rebuke in November, when pro-democracy candidates swept elections for lower-level offices.

Now that mistrust of the government is spilling over into anger about the response to the outbreak.

About 7,000 medical workers have gone on strike, demanding that Hong Kong fully close the border with the mainland. The union, the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, which was formed during the protest, said the striking members represented about 10 per cent of public hospital employees. Workers on Friday voted to end the strike.

Small explosions have been set off in some places, the latest on Tuesday in a public restroom near a public housing complex. Online, people claiming responsibility have demanded a closure of the border.

Mrs Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's top government official, has resisted calls to completely close the border with the mainland. Instead, she has introduced a series of steps that have cut arrivals. Her critics said those moves are not enough.

Even Hong Kong's pro-government leaders have signalled dissatisfaction with Mrs Lam as the economy continues to reel.

Mr Jasper Tsang, a founder of the city's largest pro-establishment party and former president of the legislature, said the city had little of the solidarity shown during Sars, when he was a member of the chief executive's cabinet.

 
 

"The government slogan is, 'Let us unite and fight the virus,' " he said. "But the unity doesn't seem to be there."

Mr Tommy Cheung, a member of Hong Kong's legislative council representing the catering industry, said, "Right now, I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel. Where is the help coming from?" he asked. "Where is the end of the virus and the end of the riots?"

On Hong Kong's streets, where nearly everybody but smokers and expatriates were wearing face masks, the mistrust of the government took the form of rumours and panic buying. Rice and vegetables disappear quickly, though shelves get restocked quickly, and supermarket chains said they have adequate supplies.

After rumours circulated that China had forced toilet paper manufacturers to make face masks, toilet paper this week disappeared from supermarket shelves. Local shoppers snatched them as they were delivered to shelves and filled their carts with big packages of rolls.

Dairy Farm Group, which runs the Wellcome supermarket chain, said the rumours were false and that it was "working closely with our suppliers to provide sufficient and diversified choices of products to our customers."

As city leaders offered assurances, residents rushed to buy face masks. Early morning lines in front of pharmacies have become a familiar sight, as have signs declaring that supplies are out. On Thursday, a group of Hong Kong physicians told reporters that their clinics might have to close some days if they do not have enough.

"My patients ask, 'Doctor, can I get 10 masks from you?' " Dr Douglas Chan, a general practitioner, said. "I tell them, 'Sorry, I don't have enough either.' "