Don’t Give Hong Kong’s Government the Credit

It was January when I first heard about the mysterious viral pneumonia circulating in Wuhan, China. I had some major worries—was this SARS redux, or something else?—but also a small, selfish lament. I was eager to go back to Hong Kong, where I had been conducting research on its protest movement. A new epidemic there would likely mean that visiting the city anytime soon would be unsafe. I worried about my many friends there. I told them that I hoped to see them as soon as the outbreak was over.
It’s been five months, and I doubt Hong Kong will let someone like me in anytime soon. The city of more than 7 million people had no local cases for weeks until today ; meanwhile, I live in the country with the worst outbreak in the world, the United States, with more than 80,000 known deaths from COVID and without encouraging developments on the necessary measures to contain it. Hong Kong, on the other hand, has had only four known deaths total from the coronavirus over the past many months. It recently stopped calculating the dreaded R(t) —the real-time transmission rate of the coronavirus—because, of course, you cannot calculate transmission rates without new cases. Hong Kong never even had a full lockdown (although it closed schools, which it plans to reopen soon). Meanwhile, I’m entering my sixth week under a stay-at-home order, with no robust exit infrastructure in place.
If there was a country that could have been expected to have a hard time with this virus, it was Hong Kong. It’s one of the most dense cities in the world, with crowded high-rise housing squeezed into almost every available space, with more cross-border traffic with China than anywhere else in the world . The region relies on an efficient but packed mass-transportation system—trains run every few minutes but many are still packed to the gills during many hours of the day. There is little open public space, and little room to naturally spread out. Many of my favorite restaurants in Hong Kong seat diners elbow to elbow, knee to knee.
Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong has had a long history of epidemics. The 1968 flu pandemic that killed 1 million people around the world started in Hong Kong, and killed at least many thousands of the city’s residents , and became known as the Hong Kong flu. Hong Kong also lost the most people outside of mainland China to the 2003 SARS epidemic.
It wouldn’t have been shocking if, like many pathogens before it, this coronavirus had spread wildly through Hong Kong. The city is connected to Wuhan, where the pandemic started, via a high-speed-train line and many daily flights. More than 2.5 million people came to Hong Kong from mainland China just in January of 2020. The city also lacks a competent government with a strong basis of legitimacy. The people don't have full voting rights and the region’s chief executive, Carrie Lam who was hand-picked by Beijing, failed to muster an effective response when the...