In January of this year, I was in Hong Kong for a cousin’s wedding when news broke from Wuhan of a novel coronavirus. The streets emptied. Masked faces were everywhere, surgical ones supplanting the full-face masks that had just been banned in response to antigovernment protests. Hong Kong had been in the seventh month of violent, unrelenting protests that drew millions of people out onto our main thoroughfares.
Returning to the States in February, I expected to be stopped at customs, and perhaps also have my temperature taken. Temperature stations are installed at the Hong Kong airport, checking the foreheads of incoming travelers before they reach customs. This is normal, even when there isn’t a pandemic. At PHL, I glided through the Global Entry kiosks — and did the same in March, returning from Bahrain.
Viruses have stamped out Hong Kong’s street-food culture and the possibilities of widespread government dissent. Government responses to pandemics have also vigorously cleaned up and sanitized our city. Hong Kongers now react with horror to any indication of poor hygiene.
Though Hong Kongers have a fraught relationship with our government and distrust many of our politicians, we trust our doctors and take seriously their messages to practice social distancing and maintain hygiene.
I’ve taken for granted in Hong Kong that every public escalator handle is sanitized every hour, that elevator buttons of all buildings are covered in easily wipeable plastic or have sanitization schedules posted above them. (This is similar to gas station restrooms in America, except Hong Kong elevator buttons are sanitized far more frequently and with fervor.) Again, this is normal life, not life during a pandemic.
In Hong Kong, the collective memory of pandemics is strong. The H5N1 outbreak of 1997 changed our food culture, eradicating street vendors and eventually moving much of our street and market culture indoors to better maintain sanitation. The SARS pandemic of 2003 taught us how to snap into pandemic mode as a unified society, and the swine flu pandemic of 2009 drove those lessons home.
The Hong Kong government now aggressively tracks travelers that enter the region, monitoring those quarantining at home with tracking bracelets and transferring exposed people to quarantine facilities. To date, Hong Kong, a tiny territory with a population of 7.4 million has reported just over 1,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases and only four deaths, in contrast to the state of Pennsylvania’s more than 34,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,000 deaths.
In Hong Kong, we know what to do. No time is wasted in shutting down public gathering places. People stay home. If they go out, masks go on. We are also culturally programmed through many generations of being yelled at by our mothers to take our shoes off before entering a house, washing our hands upon arrival home, and not wearing outside clothes while sitting on our beds.
I expected the response in the United States to match my own memories of pandemics. I expected vigorous handwashing to be the norm immediately. I expected the public consciousness of hygiene to snap into action. I hoped that post-pandemic, these practices would change general sanitation in the United States.
But that is not the case. In the U.S., there is bickering over whether to wear masks, and misdirected racism. Here we waste time and energy in debating the recommendations of science and medicine. I hear talk of opening cities and the country before we have established widespread testing. We should not put the cart before the horse.
At my small restaurant, we depended on volume to keep our prices low. There is no responsible manner to manage similar volume from pre-COVID-19 days. We temporarily closed a month ago. Although it’s a setback, we knew it was necessary to protect both employees and customers.
Timely responses to pandemics changed Hong Kong for the better in terms of sanitation, but they also erased many aspects of our food culture. What will the food culture in the United States gain and lose? Time will tell, but in the meantime, America should look to Hong Kong, where we have experience with pandemics.