Expats in Lockdown is a special series – a collection of interviews with expats around the world and how we’re all dealing with the coronavirus outbreak as best as we can. None of us have an instruction manual for times like these, especially while living abroad. My mission with this series is therefore simple – to show you how similar our experiences can be despite living in different countries.
Candace is a Canadian-born serial expat who previously lived in Denmark and now works in Hong Kong. If you’ve spent any amount of time looking at the infection rates, you would know that Hong Kong is one of the few countries that has managed to keep the outbreak of coronavirus at bay without any major lockdowns.
But with the influx of expats returning from Europe, since the virus started to spread like wildfire there, the number of infections have suddenly grown in Hong Kong. This means that expats, such as Candace, who have tried to lead a normal life meanwhile are now facing the potential of lockdown, similarly to many other countries around the world.
With all that in mind, we got to talking about how the return of some expats has brought about a wave of discrimination against and daily policing of expats. Candace also shared the many rumors and conspiracy theories that are floating around in Hong Kong – which have driven her more mad than the virus itself. However, in the interest of not spreading any more false information, I’ve only included the one we all know about – the infamous need for stockpiling toilet paper.
Katherine: How did you end up in Hong Kong?
Candace: I came to Hong Kong as part of a company to teach English through theatre.
But before that I lived in Denmark where my residency visa was coming to a close so I had to make a tough decision. My visa in Denmark came with restricted rights since I attended a private, non-government affiliated school. One of those restrictions was on the right to legally hold work in Denmark. After two years of not working, I felt eager to find a full time job.
But the job market in Alberta, where I am originally from, looked bleak. So I ended up looking for jobs in Asia, the Nordic countries, and Canada. Finally I had this company in Hong Kong approach me and I went with it.
Katherine: How has the outbreak of coronavirus impacted you living in Hong Kong?
Candace: It all started when everyone was on a break in January for Lunar New Year, which is a really big thing in Asia. It was then that the government announced that everyone was meant to work from home coming back from Lunar New Year.
This meant that schools would be closed for a while, which directly impacted me. At the time, most people just accepted it and thought they’d just figure it out. We already had experienced school closure for a few weeks in November due to the Democracy Movement, so we figured it might be like that.
But the government kept pushing the date for re-opening schools further and further. After a while they said that schools would not reopen until April. And now they’re saying that we’ll start someday again – eventually. They won’t give a definite answer.
Things were okay in February after Lunar New Year, though it was very stressful and my work insisted on face-to-face emergency meetings and coming to work every day to complete my work obligations. We pointed out that it was not safe for all of us to take the metro. But they insisted.
Nevertheless, in the last week of February the company I worked for announced that we’re all on unpaid leave for two months. I decided to quit because, fortunately, I had people who had recommended me as a private tutor for children. So I’ve been doing that ever since.
Katherine: So how are things now? I keep hearing that Hong Kong is doing exceptionally well managing the outbreak.
Candace: Everything has indeed been stable, but then, a lot of expats who had left Hong Kong for Europe in February – because they had lost their jobs or, like me, had been forced to take unpaid leave, or they were afraid to get sick. Well, now they’re all flying back because Hong Kong has had really low numbers compared to the rest of the world. And now things are not pretty.
Over one weekend we got 93 new cases. Stats from one of those days stated that 29 out of the 44 new cases had been from people coming from abroad. Fast forward, now we are at 411 confirmed cases with 281 of those being cases emerging in the past 14 days. I do believe it’s partly because some expats are returning without self-quarantining as the government is ordering them to upon arrival.
The government has even given everyone who’s returned bracelets with a QR code, and an app which they have to activate with their phones at home so the government can make sure that they’re in quarantine. They did it precisely because they anticipated many expats to return. But some have either cut off their wrist bands or left their phone at home to be able to go out.
From the beginning, expats seemed to have had a pretty shitty attitude about the measures that Hong Kong was taking to prevent the spread of coronavirus. But this seems like a new level of shitty attitude. Especially if you consider that these people flew back from Europe – they should know what happens if you don’t take this virus seriously. A lot of people are really mad about this.
I went to the gym today and I got a lot of glares from locals because I look like an obvious expat. The only thing I do is go to the grocery store, workout and tutor children. But the locals can’t know just by looking at me that I’ve been here since the beginning, so they’ve begun to give me a lot of dirty looks.
One of my good friends, who’s a local, sent me a message telling me to prepare for the fact that a lot of people are going to start labelling me as a potential carrier.
And I do it myself too when I walk on the street and I see another expat. I get worried because you just don’t know if someone’s been traveling recently or not.
They thought that the wrist brand initiative would eliminate this worry so that the rest of us out on the streets could feel safe that no one around us has travelled recently or been in contact with someone who’s travelled.
This weekend the government started to check people’s homes to see if they’re actually self-isolating. If you’re found not at home, you can get a fine or even be sent to jail for 6 months. But that’s still very fresh. I don’t know what else the government could do.
Katherine: Would you then say that the situation is getting worse now with the influx of returning expats?
Candace: You have to put this into perspective a little bit. Compared to the period of protests before, which (at least as an expat) was very scary to deal with, the coronavirus has been much easier to deal with.
Of course you’re scared for your economic situation if your job has emergency meetings every day. But we haven’t been forced to stay at home. People still take the metro or go to the gym. I remember the parks being closed for a while but they’re open again now.
We were at a point where people were able to work less from home and return to their offices in shifts. So it’s been very different from how the Western world is handling things where governments are just shutting everything down.
I feel that now with this influx of new arrivals we can’t avoid taking those measures here also. Which is unfortunate because we didn’t have to for almost two months.
Katherine: Some media suggest that Hong Kong has had such success because people are more aware of personal hygiene in public spaces because of their very recent history with the SARS outbreak. Has that been your experience as well?
Candace: I really do believe, controversially, that it’s actually masks that are helping the situation. I am convinced that masks are more effective than people have been led to believe. People who don’t have a habit of wearing a mask usually respond by referring to WHO who doesn’t necessarily recommend wearing masks.
It’s true that on its own masks are not enough. But if every single person you come in contact with throughout the day has a barrier on their face, it does limit the amount of germs that are being spread around.
In Hong Kong, everyone wears a mask because you don’t know who is sick. And people may not know themselves that they’re sick. It’s very reassuring to see everyone take these preventative measures seriously by wearing a mask.
I’m not saying that the mask eradicates coronavirus. It simply reduces the risk. Also, with a mask on you don’t touch your face in public because you have a giant thing covering your face (laughs).
Katherine: In light of this recent turn of events, what’s been the hardest thing for you?
I think the hardest thing has been weighing my options whether it’s worth it to stay in Hong Kong right now. It’s already been a tough year in Hong Kong and the situation seems to change from one day to the next.
Up until a few days ago the numbers were low and people were taking the situation seriously. I have a pretty solid income as a self-employed, I have friends here, I have things that I still want to do in Hong kong.
But Canada has just announced that it’s closing its borders for everyone other than residents and citizens – and there’s almost no more flights to Canada.
It’s been a bit difficult to decide whether I should extend my rental contract here which is up soon. On the other hand, if I don’t go home now – am I going to be able to go home in a few months?
I feel like there have been some very radical decisions made by governments around the world where one day they’re saying that everyone should fly home and then the next day they’re saying “just kidding, even though you’ve got a ticket, we’re cancelling that”.
It’s getting really tiresome to go back and forth in my head about this decision.
Katherine: You mentioned in our previous interactions that there are a lot of rumours and conspiracy theories floating around because of the coronavirus?
Yeah there’s quite a few conspiracy theories and lots of false information going around.
But one that actually has had an affect on people started alongside the outbreak, where people immediately began to stockpile toilet paper, rice and condoms (laughs).
It all began because someone had started a rumour that the factories in China which produce toilet paper, for instance, were all shutting down. Which would mean less supply in the coming months. With that in mind, it makes sense why an 80-year-old woman who only buys groceries ever so often would suddenly buy three stocks of toilet paper.
But then it seemed to happen everywhere. At that point I just really couldn’t understand what it is about toilet paper. It’s almost as if people around the world had heard that people in China and Hong Kong were stockpiling toilet paper so that’s what they ought to be doing too (laughs).
But conspiracy theories aside, I really do hope that people will start to care more about what’s going on in other countries, especially considering how easily this virus has spread everywhere. People forget that they’re not untouchable.
As an expat, I cannot speak for what Asian countries are experiencing right now. But I personally noticed there were many people asking for support when the Democracy Movement was getting heated in Hong Kong.
The international response? Many averted eyes. Then after months of unrest, they got hit with Covid-19. They also asked for support. The international response? Many memes and posts stating it’s not worse than the flu. Now that Covid-19 is everywhere, it suddenly feels like it’s being taken a lot more serious. I can’t help but wonder why that is.
I hope there’s a lesson learnt here on how quickly our interconnected world can shift and that we CAN be there for each other in tough times.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.