As an American citizen who spends time each year in both cities, I have lived through what feels like a bipolar response to covid-19. It is almost as if Hong Kong and the United States are dealing with different diseases.
One country has dug in its heels; the other has thrown up its hands. Let me describe the contrasts. When I flew back to the United States in May, a Cathay Pacific flight attendant gave me a contact-tracing form and urgently told me to fill it out. There was no indication from her, or on the form, what to do with it, but I thought that would become clear back in the States.
Upon arrival at LAX, no one would take the form — not Immigration, not Customs. Believe me, I tried. And so I went on my way still holding on to all of my contact-tracing information.
Returning to Hong Kong in late October, I was required to fill out a contact-tracing form online before boarding my flight. The online form provided me with a unique, scannable QR code. I used that code to run a public health gauntlet when I arrived at Hong Kong International Airport. The whole process resembled a human assembly line where you move from station to station in a special wing of the airport.
First, various officials checked to see that I had the QR code on my phone so that the government could contact me later on. Officials checked my paperwork to confirm that, though I was a U.S. citizen, I had come from a two-week stay in Ireland. That meant I could quarantine from my home. Those coming directly from the United States, where the pandemic was more severe, were required to quarantine in a hotel. (Now with the surge in cases worldwide, all international arrivals must quarantine in a hotel.) Officials then checked my address, so the government could make an unannounced visit to confirm I was home during my two-week quarantine. The next step was getting the plastic tracing bracelet. It goes around your wrist and has the QR code and a tracking device.
Next stage of gauntlet: virus testing. While still at the airport, officials handed me a saliva kit, and I was told to watch a video in English and Chinese that explained how to take the test in a designated cubicle and package the saliva in a vial properly. You then secure the vial in a Ziploc bag within a Ziploc bag. Then, those who arrive before noon wait — sometimes for hours — for the results before they are released.
At least two people manned every checkpoint at the Hong Kong airport — a sign of both the local labor market and the seriousness with which the Chinese take the public-health challenge.
People who arrive after 12 p.m., as I did, are taken by bus to a utilitarian hotel for an overnight stay, paid for by the Hong Kong government. When the test results come in at about noon the next day, those who tested negative go on their way, while those who tested positive are whisked away to government quarantine.
Once home, both the bracelet and a “Stay Home Safe” app downloaded at the airport keep track of new arrivals. Anyone who breaks the rules is put into government quarantine. Knowing someone who landed there a few months earlier was sufficient encouragement for me to stay in my apartment. He lost 15 pounds in two weeks.
I am not arguing that this protocol would be possible to implement in the United States. It is labor-intensive, expensive and tramples on privacy. But it helps explain why some countries are stopping spread and others are failing. Hong Kong, with a population just under New York City’s, has suffered three distinct covid-19 waves, and each time has brought the community spread down to close to zero. (Hong Kong’s cases have in the past week or so begun to bump up slightly.)
Now out of quarantine, I have returned to my classroom where my students and I are masked and socially distanced, but there is no real concern that any of us are carriers. The community spread is, at most, a few cases in a city of 7.5 million people. People go out without worry. While Americans continue to fight wave upon wave, in Hong Kong, for now, the battle has been won. Another wave may hit, but residents here will have had a much needed respite.
As Americans, we do not need to throw up our hands. It seems like a failure of imagination and an abdication of discipline. There are better practices to adapt, inconveniences we could live with temporarily and numbers waiting to be drawn down.
Since Meadows laid bare his approach, the virus has spread like wildfire, including to him. Isn’t it time for Americans to dig in their heels and, like Hong Kong, actively try to control the pandemic?