It is seven months since I wrote the first ‘Letter from Hong Kong’. The message then was simple: “Fear is okay, panic is not and wear masks”. It is one month since I wrote the last letter and that message? “Life goes on and will go on no matter what.”

1 November was a Sunday. It was a beautiful day in Hong Kong. The winds have changed. In the hot and humid summer months the winds come from the south, from the South China sea. Humidity can be higher than 90% at a time when the temperature is reaching the mid-thirties. The winter winds come from the north. They are colder and drier, and I can sit in my office without air-conditioning or even a fan. It was a day to stroll on the promenade created by upmarket residential developments on reclaimed land. I live in the New Territories, next to the Science Park and the Chinese University of Hong Kong overlooking the Tolo Harbour. This is a far cry from the iconoclastic view of Hong Kong Island. An interesting use of the word, ‘iconoclastic’, but come to Tsim Sha Tsui, in the evening time and look over Victoria Harbour. It is magic, a magic unparalleled on this planet.

But we have magic in the New Territories too. Sunday was such a day. There were crowds of people, cycling, walking, picnicking; there was such a sense of timelessness that I was surprised not to see children guiding rolling hoops with sticks. Then I looked again, everyone, everyone, without exception, was wearing a mask. This is not a government mandate. This is a social response from over seven million people living in one of the most densely populated parts of the world who take survival seriously.

We are not perfect. For six months we had just four deaths and just over one thousand infections. Now Hong Kong reports, just over 5000 cases and 105 deaths. July was our biggest spike. COVID fatigue. But look at the world’s so-called leader, the United States of America: 9.38 million cases and 231,000 deaths. And the UK, 1.05 million cases and 46,800 deaths. From a virus?! How does a puny little bit of RNA outwit some of the most powerful men on the planet.

How indeed? COVID-19 is caused by a novel coronavirus. It is predominantly a respiratory disease spread by airborne dissemination. Lives are lost whilst pedants opine and talk about aerosols and droplets and surfaces and bubbles. I still recall the surprise and disappointment when hearing the Deputy Chief Medical Officer in the UK declaring that only symptomatic people could spread the virus. No. No. No! He may be a specialist in influenza, but the coronaviruses are a different ‘animal’ altogether.

Now I understand Mr Johnson is proposing a further ‘lockdown’ in England. I am not sure I know what a lockdown entails. Okay, with a respiratory disease caused by an airborne virus you want to keep unprotected social interaction to a minimum. But what is ‘social interaction’? We are not talking about healthcare professionals dealing with sick people (N95 masks, visors, gloves, gowns, etc). We are talking about going shopping, going to school, taking a walk in the park, catching a bus or train. And then there are the ‘essential workers’ who also must wear masks. Let us be clear, we are dealing with a strand of RNA, not Watson, the IBM supercomputer. This is not three-dimensional chess or Go! This virus needs human cells in order to survive. It binds to the angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2) which occurs in a number of cells but typically on the mucous membranes of the nose, mouth, eyes and intestines. It is a sneaky virus. It happily co-exists with some humans, causing no signs or symptoms, and drifts from one human to another in respiratory droplets and aerosols. Occasionally it is transmitted by surface contamination and ‘self-inoculation’.

So, what do we do? Homo Sapiens, the most evolved life form on the planet (that we know of)? Back to basics: prevention is better than cure. Prevention? We assume that anyone, everyone, is a carrier of the virus. And, to limit spread, everyone wears a mask. Simple. So, simple. We do not wear the masks all the time. In our unique social units, we take off the masks. This is our bubble, our ‘circle of trust’. When we go shopping, when we go to school, college or university, we wear masks. We need to deprive this virus of hiding places.

Mass testing, with rapid results, can enlarge our ‘circle of trust’. These bubbles can enlarge and coalesce and life, miraculously can go on. This is a virus. It has no brain. It can be beaten without advanced therapeutics, or vaccines. But it does require society to work together. What a wonderful world this could be if people started to think as much about each other as they do about themselves! Less burns, less accidents, less trauma, less . . . COVID-19. Less poverty, less hunger, less fear. Less inequality. Please note, this is not communism or socialism or any ‘-ism’. It is humanity. It is caring

This is not going to happen overnight. It will take time but what is a short-term deprivation of perceived indulgent freedoms compared to a long-term freedom to live? I am thinking in very simple terms of the MeMe’s and the MeWe’s. Which are you? If the former, then you belong to the past. The future belongs to the MeWe people. The bridge builders, not the wall builders.

These are exciting times. They really are. Yes, there is an election today that is going to define democracy; there is a lockdown in the UK which is going to pit individual freedoms against the good of society. Life is changing. It will never be the same again. Humility is never a bad thing and will be essential for society to survive. Take care, everyone. Keep safe, keep healthy and wear those masks! For the general population the masks are there to stop the virus dissemination at source. Oh, and whilst I think of it, children should be wearing masks as well, particularly at school.



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Andrew Burd (Prof)

The Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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