The flight from Los Angeles (LAX) to Hong Kong (HKG) departed just before midnight on March 2 and arrived in the morning on March 4. Then, coronavirus didn’t seem to be a problem in the US. Other than passengers from China, there was no health screening for passengers entering the US. At LAX and the LAX Marriott hotel everything seemed normal except a few people at the airport were wearing masks. The atmosphere at HKG was a much different than at LAX.
Hong Kong is an easy airport for connecting passengers. Unlike many countries, passengers connecting between international flights need not go through passport control or immigration. They just go through standard security screening and proceed into the airport proper (airside). Passengers who are entering Hong Kong go directly to immigration and passport control where they present their passport and a short immigration form before entering the territory.
This time the process was different. Every airport and airline employee wore masks. Almost all Asians wore masks. Onboard, along with the usual Hong Kong immigration forms, flight attendants handed out a new document, a Health Declaration Form. The form instructs passengers to disclose if they have coronavirus symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath or sore throat. The form must be completed by all visitors entering the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) by land, sea or air.
The form is collected at passport control/immigration. I was connecting and did not need to complete the form. I dropped it in my backpack with the immigration form.
In addition, HKG was now requiring that all arriving passengers receive an individual temperature scan. An airport worker stopped each passenger as they entered the area for transfer or immigration. They scanned your forehead with a device that looks like a Star Trek ray gun. I was a little nervous wondering what would happen. The worker said my temp was normal and cleared me to enter security screening. After security I joined the other departing passengers in the terminal.
Hong Kong authorities were clearly very concerned about coronavirus and were trying to identify potential carriers irrespective of nationality or point of embarkation. I do not know when this form was adopted; at the time however, Hong Kong, a city bordering China with 7.5 million residents and close commercial and personal ties to the mainland was reporting only 104 coronavirus cases.
Recently, Hong Kong’s success with early adoption of these measures and others like virus mapping, social distancing, intensive hand-washing, and wearing masks and other protective clothing may have led to false confidence that the virus was under control. On March 2, after several weeks of working from home, the majority of Hong Kong’s civil servants returned to their offices. Private employers followed suit. Ridership on the city’s subway system increased substantially. Returning residents and foreigners brought new infections that resulted in new community spread. Today Hong kong is reporting 356 coronavirus cases.
Hong Kong is reverting to its original measures and adding severe new ones. Government employees must work from home. Many private employers are doing the same. The sale of alcohol is banned. Returning residents must be tested, are quarantined for 14 days, and are required to wear electronic monitoring bracelets. Non residents are not allowed in and HKG will not allow transit passengers.
There are lessons to be learned. Hong Kong was doing a great job in early March, but subsequently let its guard down. It is now implementing restrictions on work, travel, and everyday life that are even more strict than the original ones. In the US and elsewhere we should not relax prematurely but let measures designed to “flatten the curve” of infection take full effect. Beat the virus and the economy will come back.