Living in a Hong Kong pummelled by the worst Covid outbreak in China since the start of the pandemic is like being stuck in a real-life version of Waiting for Godot. The absurdist play by Samuel Beckett tells the story of Vladimir and Estragon, two men who agree to wait for the arrival of the titular character to give them some direction. Godot never shows up but their existential discussions about what they should do become the story.
We too are waiting. For an exit strategy. For lockdown. For Beijing to lay out what will happen in the nominally autonomous city. Meanwhile a low-level panic has set in. Residents are emptying shops, forcing stores to put restrictions on the purchase of staples such as rice and noodles as well as cold and flu remedies. Parents worry about being separated from their children in quarantine if anyone tests positive. Every conversation revolves around a single question: “Are you leaving?”
Bhavna Bharvani, a clinical counsellor, told me many clients were suffering from learned helplessness, a psychological term that describes a depression or mental illness caused by a lack of control over the outcome of a negative situation: “We’ve become so used to things being out of our control and being powerless to do anything, that it has become much harder to take proactive steps to make changes.”
The government urges calm. But the public response points to dwindling trust after conflicting messaging. A rare directive from Chinese president Xi Jinping urging officials to take “all necessary steps” to contain the virus raised the prospect of more stringent measures.
It is an extraordinary turn for a city that reported few infections or deaths until early February. For the first two years of the pandemic, restrictions were tough. Social distancing measures and mask wearing became the norm and authorities cut Hong Kong off from the world by imposing hotel quarantine requirements for up to three weeks for arrivals who tested negative. Yet we never endured the type of lockdowns seen in Europe or North America. Millions died overseas but in Hong Kong we were safe.
For immunocompromised people like me, this mattered. When the first reports of a mystery illness emerged from Wuhan in 2020, I sought refuge in London on the advice of my haematologist. Three months later, when Covid was raging in Europe and UK prime minister Boris Johnson ruled out imposing any restrictions, things changed. “Go as soon as you can,” my doctor said. “Things will pick up quickly in the UK in the next few days. HK will be safer.”
Now, while the UK’s vaccination campaign has paid off, authorities here report tens of thousands of cases every day. Deaths are rising fast, owing to the scandalously low vaccination rates among the elderly.
The official case numbers are probably an underrepresentation. Many residents are not reporting infections owing to the threat of quarantine. When a friend suddenly goes quiet, there is a good chance a member of their household has tested positive via a store-bought kit or come into contact with someone who has. But this will not be an option for much longer: the government has mandated that all 7.4mn residents undergo mandatory testing this month. More quarantine facilities are being built in preparation.
Karen Grépin, a health policy expert at the University of Hong Kong, expects the government to remain committed to zero-Covid, even though current circumstances should mean a shift in approach. She adds that many of the benefits Hong Kong might have seen “have been lost”.
Expats and local residents are fleeing. My friend Jack, who grew up in Hong Kong, flew to London with his wife and daughter on a flight full of other families after an 11-month-old was isolated in hospital after testing positive. Her parents were barred from seeing her. “From our perspective, there’s no way Beijing will allow these case numbers to continue without a lockdown,” he said.
That is the rub. The outbreak is the latest example of Hong Kong’s dwindling power to manage its own affairs. It has amplified concerns that a government which insists on operating without opposition is out of touch with its people’s needs. Like Beckett’s hapless characters, Hong Kong is stuck in limbo.