‘The uncertainty is oppressive’: A coronavirus dispatch from Hong Kong

Society & Culture
/ Credit: dav

Boredom, anxiety, and frustration: With classes cancelled indefinitely, a university student in Hong Kong explains how she and her classmates are passing the time.



Hong Kong has gone through a lot in the last few months, from mass demonstrations to sieges at universities, resulting in an economic downturn and divisions in communities. But the emergence of the COVID-19 coronavirus has tested the city’s spirit and its people’s already-low trust in their government in new and significant ways.

In January, when I returned to the city to start the new semester at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), no one expected the situation to get this bad. At the time, things had just returned to relative normal after six months of anti-government protests. We learned about a mysterious new disease via a leaked statement from Wuhan doctor Lǐ Wénliàng 李文亮, but the danger seemed far away. Universities, which had just reopened, operated as usual.

But on January 25, two days after Wuhan was locked down, universities decided to suspend all classes. Everyone rushed to the stores to buy surgical masks, with many places selling out that same day. People began lining up at 4 a.m. in front of pharmacies to get the next day’s shipment. Toilet paper and rice also flew off the shelves.

Confusing statements by Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam didn’t help. At first, she instructed everyone to wear masks in order to prevent infections. But as masks became harder to find, she made a public speech in which she prohibited government workers from wearing masks unless they’re ill. Although her latter statement squares with the advice of international health organizations, Hong Kong citizens had little patience for mixed messages. (On February 5, Lam said at a press briefing that her advice to not wear masks was only so that priority could be given to medical staff.)

Meanwhile, university students like me wondered when we would return to class. The government has recently said kindergartens and schools will be off until April 20, but my peers and I have heard no concrete dates for our school. We’ve been taking classes online since February 17. Many international students have gone back home, and many mainland students have been stuck in dormitories. The disruption of daily life has become normalized in Hong Kong.

I stay at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s campus, which is away from the city center and probably one of the safest places to be. The medical center nearby is open 24/7, and some canteens and a grocery store on campus have remained open. Many students have begun storing food in their rooms in an attempt to minimize the risk of getting infected. At the canteen, I was struck by the image of people sitting alone at separate tables instead of talking with others.

“Initially, it was quite a shock,” said Eshanee, an Indian student. “These are things you find in movies, can’t imagine living through it. Of course, Hong Kong is no way as bad as Wuhan. But being stuck on campus for just a couple weeks makes us sympathize with students in Wuhan universities living in more severe conditions.”

To alleviate our boredom and loneliness, we might get together to cook or watch movies. Safety measures the school has taken include frequent disinfections of all surfaces, as well as mandatory temperature checks of students who enter the campus.

When I asked around about whether people were scared, the most common answer I received was, “It’s honestly not that bad and the campus is probably the safest place we can be.” But people are uncertain about their future, including their graduation.

Camilia, a final-year engineering student from Kazakhstan, said that uncertainty was terrible. “Even though I would like to stay in Hong Kong and work here, I don’t know if I’m going to graduate on time, and if I’ll find a job in the city with its decreasing economy,” she said.

For the mainland students around me, their biggest concern appears to be their friends and family back home. “I don’t really worry about myself right now,” said Jane, a mainland student majoring in linguistics. “I do everything I can, being careful about my personal hygiene, but there is little I can do to control things other than that. Whatever is going to happen to me is going to happen to me. I have learned to treasure the moment and love the people around me when I still can.”

Hong Kong students, meanwhile, are weighing their options. The city is in chaos again, and there’s nothing they can do about it. Many of them have told me they are planning to transfer, with the U.S. and UK mentioned as the most popular potential destinations. The uncertainty has felt oppressive.

Outside campus, it’s been sad to look at a city once filled with life now completely deflated. The sadness I’ve noticed in people’s eyes, which began over the summer, has turned into exhaustion and fear.

“This epidemic has thrown us all into a state of confusion,” said Cherie, a Hongkonger and CUHK freshman. “Every Hong Kong student’s education has been abruptly put on hold and we’ve still yet to sort out our new assessment schemes with the professors. It’s a very depressing situation overall.”