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

Feb 13, 2020
Originally published on February 21, 2020 4:31 pm

Updated Feb. 21, 11:56 a.m. ET

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.

Alfred Wong, a cardioligst at Tuen Mun Hospital in northwest Hong Kong, now treats patients with COVID-19 and those suspected of infection. Wong, who grew up in Hong Kong, is frustrated with the slow response from the government in working to stop the spread of the disease.
Meredith Rizzo / NPR

"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.

Hong Kong's usually busy traffic has slowed since the city issued a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone entering from mainland China.
Meredith Rizzo / NPR
People shop in a Hong Kong market for fruits and vegetables. In this city of more than 7 million, many people have had their businesses or lives disrupted by the viral outbreak.
Meredith Rizzo / NPR

"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.

Mrs. Cheung runs a tea shop in a bustling part of the Mong Kok neighborhood. Business has been down since the outbreak began.
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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).

People inspect surgical masks for sale. Hong Kong health authorities have encouraged people to wear masks to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. Some stores have increased the price because of demand.
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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.

Siu Lin Miao, 58, a sanitation worker, has been rationing masks. She says the company she works for has been experiencing a shortage of masks; she's using one per day on the job.
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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.

Students have been taking online classes since schools shut down.
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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.

Signs in public spaces like Hong Kong University remind people that there are sanitary practices in place to prevent the spread of the virus.
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"People are really afraid," he says.

On the mass transit rail system in Hong Kong, announcements remind people to wash their hands and cover their coughs.
Meredith Rizzo / NPR

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.

There are at least 50 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a city of more than 7 million people. Despite the low number, schools have shut down, fewer people are on the streets and businesses have taken a hit from the coronavirus.
Meredith Rizzo / NPR

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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