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'It's Not Easy For Anyone': Coronavirus Disrupts Life And Work In Hong Kong

Students Caleb Lam (left), 15, and Kevin Ng, 16, have been taking online classes since the schools shut down. ""You have nothing to do at home after classes. We chat online," Lam says.
Meredith Rizzo NPR
Students Caleb Lam (left), 15, and Kevin Ng, 16, have been taking online classes since the schools shut down. ""You have nothing to do at home after classes. We chat online," Lam says.

Coming off a shift at Tuen Mun Hospital in Hong Kong on Wednesday night, cardiologist Alfred Wong was getting ready to go to dinner with his wife. The last time they ate together, she brought the meal to the courtyard below their apartment, placed it on a bench, then sat down at least 10 feet away.

From across the patio, they ate. On separate benches. Looking at each other.

Wong is part of the hospital's "dirty team," which treats only confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. So far, it's killed more than a thousand and sickened over 50,000 people in China. In Hong Kong, there are currently at least 50 confirmed cases.

Treating patients with COVID-19 means Wong needs to be extra cautious.

"I don't go home after work. [I] stay away from my friends, stay away from my family," he says.

It's especially hard because he and his wife are expecting their first child in April.

"It's not easy for anyone," he says.

The novel coronavirus has been on the minds of people in Hong Kong since the outbreak began about two months ago. This week, the city issued a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone entering from mainland China, slowing the flow of tens of thousands of commuters and travelers who pass through Hong Kong on any given day.

Those who are quarantined must remain in their homes or hotel rooms for 14 days before being allowed into the city.

"Business is bad," says the 70-year-old owner of a tea shop in usually busy Mong Kok district. She gives her name simply as Mrs. Cheung – that's what everyone calls her, she explains.

Cheung has been running the tea shop for 50 years, and she says that many people are staying home right now because they're afraid to be in public spaces. It began with the wave of violent street protests last year over Hong Kong's autonomy, and now the fear of catching the virus has kept people away.

But, Cheung says, "It's useless to be worried." She lived through SARS, the severe acute respiratory sickness that hit Hong Kong hard in the early 2000s. At least, she says, "people seem more cautious this time."

For one, more people are wearing surgical masks — public health authorities have encouraged people to wear them (even though the ability of masks to prevent infection has been questioned by some specialists).

High demand for masks has led to some shops selling them for as much as $50 for a box of 50. When some of the larger chain stores do have masks in stock at lower prices, there are long lines to get them.

A sanitation worker on the street for most of the day, Siu Lin Miao, 58, says the price of masks has meant she must ration the ones she has. The mask she put on this morning has been on for almost 12 hours. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, masks should be changed every eight hours.

Andy Chan, 19, was hanging around outside the Langham Place mall. He's a student, and schools have shut down indefinitely, opting instead to post lectures online.

"People are really afraid," he says.

Public spaces throughout the city are full of reminders of the virus. Malls have workers wiping down escalator handles. The city's mass transit system plays announcements telling people to cover their coughs and sneezes with tissues and wash their hands. A sign outside a hot pot restaurant implores patrons to bring their own surgical masks to dinner.

Dr. Wong, who put cardiology on hold in order to treat COVID-19 patients at the hospital, hopes he will be off the dirty team rotation by April, in time for his child's birth.

"I just want to be a normal doctor," he says.

That includes returning to normal life.

Before he began treating virus patients, he says he would touch his wife's belly every day and say, "Take it slowly, tiger. Wait for me."

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