It has been a gorgeous day here in Hong Kong. The air is especially fresh due to the decreased industrial activity in the Pearl River delta. It has been a day to wear t-shirts and welcome the mildly cooling breeze. I went shopping. I had to take the minibus; there are no explicit rules but ‘no mask, no bus’ is practised without exception. I went to New Town Plaza in Sha Tin. This is one of the great social-architectural innovations of the British Colonial Era: a transport hub, a series of shopping plazas, centres and galleries with entertainment, schools and residential tower blocks all in one place. That was the core of the ‘New Towns’ developed by the British: the key being connections, the very antithesis of social isolation. I did my shopping (no shortage of food) and caught the bus back to my village. I did not feel any fear about going to Sha Tin today. Everybody was wearing a mask.

I was very afraid of going to Sha Tin even three months ago. And if I had worn a mask, the police might have stopped me. Feelings and emotions are not abstract concepts, they need context. This is not the platform for political debate but I mentioned in my letter from 1 April, the experience of living through SARS when the world was engaged in a horrendous human conflict.

In August 2003 the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine published an article entitled: ‘The SARS epidemic in Hong Kong: what lessons have we learned?’ by LS Hung LS. The article demonstrated that the outbreak began in PWH, on 17 March 2003. Operation Iraqi Freedom began the same week. It was on 10 April that The New England Journal of Medicine released on line two reports detailing the confirmation of a new coronavirus causing SARS. We lived for that intense period of time without a context for our fear. Another way to express that is that fear of the unknown is very different from fear of the known.

If you can appreciate that, then try to imagine, what it must have been like to be a Public Health official in Wuhan, China, in December of 2019. Hong Kong was on the verge of self-destruction. The sheer violence and wanton destruction of the pro-democracy protesters was frightening for us in Hong Kong, but it must have been very worrying for all of those north of the border. It was obvious that the protesters had at least the tacit support of several western governments; governments who have expressed concern at the rising superpower status of China.

You can see the timeline of the outbreak on the World Health Organization (WHO) website:

A pneumonia of unknown cause detected in Wuhan, China was first reported to the WHO Country Office in China on 31 December 2019. On 12 January 2020, the whole genome sequences for ‘the novel #coronavirus (2019-nCoV)’ from the Chinese authorities were shared with WHO. At the same time, they were also submitted by the Chinese authorities to the GISAID platform. This platform is a global sharing platform for sharing influenza data so that they can be accessed by public health authorities, laboratories and researchers. The Wuhan lockdown began on 23 January. This was two days after the WHO visited Wuhan.

The WHO continued to liaise (verb: to cooperate, consult and discuss in order to come to a common solution) with the Chinese authorities and the outcome? The WHO declared that there was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30 January 2020. This is history. Recorded, cross checked and documented.

As I travelled on the bus to town, I was using my mobile phone to connect with the rest of the world and one issue caught my eye: an interview with Bill Gates:!preferred/0/package/192/pub/192/page/15/article/32378

What he sees so clearly is that a global pandemic is a global problem. Now is not the time to start spreading blame. There will be time for that later. At the same time, now, is the time to recognise the great courage required in true leadership. The People’s Republic of China has come of age. It has been as open, as transparent, as globally concerned as it could be. Internally, the central government acted with unimaginable speed and purpose. Mistakes were made, but those mistakes were rarely repeated. The next link is to a video of a detailed response by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying. She was speaking at a regular press briefing on 2 April 2020:

Compare the response to that of a White House COVID-19 Task Force briefing led by the leader of the ‘free’ world. The reality is there for all to see. China has come of age and has shown the world the importance of comparing the rights of society, with the rights of the individual. There must be a balance between control and freedom. This is no longer a political issue; it is a public health issue. An example is the wearing of masks, by the public, when in public. It should be mandatory, not an option.

Wearing a mask, when in public, is a sign that you care. You are aware that there may be asymptomatic spreaders and despite how well you may feel, you may be one of them. You care enough to wear a mask to limit the community spread of this potentially lethal virus.

Keep safe and spread the word for the general public:

  • Prevention has to be the foundation on which we build a post-pandemic future.
  • Prevention 101: stop the spread. Take the handle off the water pump. Wear masks.
  • Prevention 102: social distancing in public and yes, regard every public surface to be a potential threat and cleaning hands accordingly.
  • Social hygiene: being polite and considerate and we will all be safe.



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Andrew Burd (Prof)

The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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