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If there was a country that could have been expected to have a hard time with this virus, it was Hong Kong. It’s one of the most dense cities in the world, with crowded high-rise housing squeezed into almost every available space, and more cross-border traffic with China than anywhere else in the world. The region relies on an efficient but packed mass-transportation system—trains run every few minutes but many are stuffed to the gills during many hours of the day. There is little open public space, and little room to naturally spread out. Many of my favorite restaurants in Hong Kong seat diners elbow to elbow, knee to knee.
Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong has had a long history of epidemics. The 1968 flu pandemic that killed 1 million people around the world started in Hong Kong, and killed at least many thousands of the city’s residents, and became known as the Hong Kong flu. Hong Kong also lost the most people outside of mainland China to the 2003 SARS epidemic.
It wouldn’t have been shocking if, like many pathogens before it, this coronavirus had spread wildly through Hong Kong. The city is connected to Wuhan, where the pandemic started, via a high-speed-train line and many daily flights. More than 2.5 million people came to Hong Kong from mainland China just in January of 2020. The city also lacks a competent government with a strong basis of legitimacy. The people don’t have full voting rights and the region’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, who was hand-picked by Beijing, failed to muster an effective response when the protest movement engulfed the city in 2019. The region’s economy was already in recession before the pandemic, and things have worsened since. Lam is extremely unpopular, with a staggering 80 percent disapproval rating.
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Lam fumbled the response to the pandemic as well, reacting with ineptitude, especially at first. Hong Kong’s first coronavirus case was reported when she was having dim sum with world leaders in Davos, Switzerland, and there was an outcry over the fact that she did not quickly return. She dragged her feet in closing the city’s borders, and never fully closed down the land border with China. The hospitals suffered from shortages of personal protective equipment. Lam wavered on masks, and even ordered civil servants not to wear them. There were shortages of crucial supplies and empty shelves in stores, as well as lines for many essentials. In early February, the financial outlet Bloomberg ran an opinion piece that compared Hong Kong to a “failed state”—a striking assessment for a global financial center and transportation hub usually known for its efficiency and well-functioning institutions.
And yet there is no unchecked, devastating COVID-19 epidemic in Hong Kong. The city beat back the original wave, and also beat back a second resurgence due to imported cases. But unlike in Taiwan or South Korea, this success can’t be attributed to an executive that acted early and with good governance backed by the people.