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Masking and travelling during Covid-19

Masking and travelling during Covid-19 Posted on 30 June, 2020Leave a comment

How the world managed pandemic so differently across countries was partly governance, but also their history with so-called ‘tropical’ zootonic diseases.

From about February, we saw the reaction towards coronavirus still very much a disease of the East with its suspected roots from a wet market in Wuhan, China. There has been prejudice from labelling how the Chinese eat bat soups to problems with ‘traditional Chinese medicine’ as well as calling for a ban on ‘wet markets’.

Yet with global travel, the pandemic has spread very quickly, much of Europe and the US went into a ‘lockdown’ increasing social distancing from March and a ban of public gatherings. Huge discussion pursued regarding the efficacy of face masks, which remained a visible marker between the East and the West.

I was a little skeptical about wearing a mask myself at the beginning of it all, especially being in London when it still felt like a distant bell. But frequent calls with my mum reminded me that it was all very real, and it all hit home when panic buying began in March.

We would quickly see the rise of cases around the world. The main difference for countries who were a little better putting Covid-19 under control, seemed to be the wearing of face masks in Asia – something that was associated with SARS back in 2003. At the time I was sitting for my A-Levels in Hong Kong and I would never forget pulling my mask down for the examiners to cross-check my identity.

That epidemic was short-lived, but for these mask-wearing countries (including Hong Kong) it remains an enigma why this is not mandated in other places. Debates on supply was genuine, because at least in the UK, PPE (that stands for Personal Protective Equipment by the way) was already insufficient at hospitals for frontline staff. If this was recommended for the whole population, does that mean those who need it won’t necessarily have it?

At the same time though, if supplies in Asia are steady, how come this could not be replicated? Eventually we also know that because carriers of Covid-19 can be asymptomatic, so wearing a face mask could reduce droplet transmission, and you are also less likely to touch your face when you are wearing a mask. The UK government now has guidance on how to make cloth face coverings (note, not ‘masks’) and these are required for when using public transport.

As lockdown eases and everyone impatient to resume business as usual, it is important that we remain vigilant on the possible waves that might follow. Many countries now consider relaxing travel restrictions whilst some places remain a little more cautious than others, one being the city of Hong Kong.

Earlier this month, we flew back from London to Hong Kong in time for Audrey to resume school. It certainly felt bizarre travelling during a global pandemic. London Heathrow was virtually deserted, but to land at Hong Kong International Airport already itself felt like a quarantine centre – virtually every one was in a hamza suit with full face coverings.

We landed first thing in the morning and could only leave after a whole day awaiting for our test results. A process which I thought was a little pedantic, but thorough and the reason why such a densely populated city with its porous borders with mainland China and a local transit hub (still during pandemic times), was able to keep the infection rates at bay.

I shared our experience here on Twitter:

Having gone through quite a bit of paperwork to register our details, and making sure we sign a document which mandates that we oblige home quarantine rules, we were bussed to the Asia Exhibition Centre where first left our bags from the back entrance, got back on the same bus to get off again at the other entrance. This I guessed, was to avoid any mishandling of the luggage we had with us for a single flow of people.

This was where we obtained our home tracking wristbands, and then produced our saliva samples for testing following a step-by-step PowerPoint presentation. We then got seated in an examination hall setting at 2m apart in the next hall. We would then wait for the whole day as we arrived in the morning. Passengers on flights landed later in the day would be bussed to a hotel in town, until they get the all-clear the next morning.

This whole time, we were only offered a ham and cheese wrapped in a cling film accompanied with an individually packaged alcoholic hand wipe. It was truly ironic as Hong Kong is meant to be the food capital of Asia? During a global pandemic under infection control, I suppose ‘a sterile approach’ is above all.

After a long mundane wait which lasted the whole day, our flight and the others were all clear of the virus. So the next step was to get home in a taxi. The taxi driver told us that many of his colleagues were fearful of picking passengers up from Asia Expo but business has been so poor so there was really no choice. Once we got home, we had to set the parameters of our confinement on the government app, to make sure we are within the boundaries of our home during this time.

We did it after 14 days at home! Because we were already mostly at home during lockdown London, home quarantine in Hong Kong simply felt an extension of it all. We are thankful for my mum and her helper Marlene who would make a journey over to the outlying island to bring us food and leave right away, as where we are is considered a remote area (and unreachable by food deliveries).

It was extraordinary to have experienced two very different approaches to infection control during the coronavirus pandemic. What remains a big question is when perhaps we could get back to ‘normal’… which perhaps is no longer the status quo?

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