Lam, who served as Hong Kong’s welfare secretary during the SARS outbreak, at that time showed flashes of empathy and skilled political maneuvering in her handling of the response. Those two traits have, however, been missing from her in recent months. While the government began providing information on the outbreak to the public on January 2 and took some precautionary measures, Lam herself was not in Hong Kong as the situation worsened. Rather, she flew to Davos, Switzerland, to attend the World Economic Forum, part of a charm offensive to rehabilitate the city’s image, as well as her own. Lam said the trip was to show the world that Hong Kong “is very much 'ON' and will remain a globally significant city." But as she dined with global elites and posed for photos with world leaders, anxiety and worry over the spread of the disease were growing at home. Medical experts at the University of Hong Kong, many of whom were involved with countering the SARS epidemic, raised alarm over the rapid spread of the virus and urged more precautions to be taken.
Lam seemed decidedly less worried, even as other governments, including that in nearby Macau, announced more stringent protective measures. Addressing concerns in an interview with Chinese state television last week, Lam—still in Davos, apparently unwilling to cut her trip short—said her administration had made responding to the medical situation a “top, top priority.” Finally, on Sunday evening, after returning from the Alps, Lam opened her press conference on a defensive note, rattling off the number of briefings and statements issued by the government. She then announced that she was raising the city’s response level to “emergency,” the highest in Hong Kong’s three-tiered system.
Schools, already out of session for the Lunar New Year, would be closed until February 17, and flights and high-speed trains from Wuhan to Hong Kong would be suspended indefinitely, Lam said. Amusement parks, including Disneyland, were shuttered. The Hong Kong Marathon was scrapped. An awkward moment unfolded when Lam was asked about the government’s attempts to overturn an earlier court decision that had ruled her ban on wearing masks unconstitutional, given that health professionals were now urging people to wear them in public.
Ho-Fung Hung, an international-relations professor at Johns Hopkins University, told me that with swift and decisive measures, the government could yet win back public support, but that early on its response looked to be “slow and behind the curve.” Officials seemed to be “dominated by political consideration, such that they [did] not do anything until the Chinese government officially admitted the scale of the problem,” he said. “Discussion about the virus already circulated in the media for a few weeks in Hong Kong, and the government has been aloof and denying there is any problem.”