LOUNGING in my pink onesie, on the third day of a mandatory 14-day quarantine on return to Hong Kong, and I am waiting for my online order of whisky to arrive. I’m also thinking how well the Hong Kong government and people have been managing this pandemic.
I recently returned from a trip to the United States where I was speaking on event design at The Special Event (TSE) in Las Vegas. When I left for the US, Hong Kong was in a holding pattern in the number of Covid-19 cases and was just reopening government facilities and easing restrictions.
The US was confidently saying they had things under control, and there was no need to worry, but the situation deteriorated rapidly during the week of the conference.
I had the dubious “luck” of being in Hong Kong in 2003 when SARS (the first pandemic of the 21st century) hit us. Rumours started in February that year about a weird disease in mainland China. By March it was spreading in Hong Kong leading to most events being cancelled.
As health workers scrambled to figure how it was spread, rumours of deadly plague escaping from laboratories emerged. No one would touch anything; people were frightened of each other and everyone was wearing masks.
Fear was rife, property plummeted, work disappeared, everything stopped. In the past I tried to explain the experience of SARs but only those who were here really understood. We learn from experience. As crisis exposes faults in systems, the systems are made more resilient and with each crisis less damage is done.
As I arrived in the US on my recent trip, I wondered why there was no real system in place for health checks, other than asking if I had been to mainland China in the past two weeks. There were no temperature checks, no scanners, no health declaration forms.
On the first day of the conference many people were slightly offended when I wouldn’t shake their hand, preferring to give a “live long and prosper” wave. Others mildly scoffed at my spray sanitizer that I constantly waived about.
As the week went on news became grim, event cancelations rolled in and an uneasiness emerged around the event community in the realization that something big was about to be experienced.
After the conference I washed my hands and left Vegas for other meetings and family, and watched as cities around the country began to close during the next two weeks, exposing the fragile healthcare system of the US.
Heading back into Hong Kong on one of the last flights available out of San Francisco, Cathay Pacific had a nurse station set up where they were checking the temperature of all passengers before check-in. That was the only time in the US I had a temperature check other than checking my own before visiting family.
Cathay was also handing out masks provided by the Hong Kong Government and asking us to wear them on the flight. As usual all passengers were thermal scanned on arriving into Hong Kong, plus more thorough temperature checks, conducted randomly. Before immigration all passengers showed their health declaration form, then moved into a long spaced-out queuing system.
I chose to have my test done at AsiaWorld-Expo, which had buses to the nearby venue. On arrival we entered a big hall with different areas spaced out and ushers at each station to guide and help.
First we checked in our luggage, then sanitised our hands and proceeded to a desk where two health workers explained the process and filed our paperwork. While we waited for our number to be called we watched a short film about how to spit into the dish and ensure all was sanitary.
After several minutes I was walking around the corner to an area with small private booths. I went to my numbered booth, spat in the vial, sealed it and cleaned the outside with alcohol and placed in a double plastic bag, then handed it in before collecting my luggage and heading to my studio where I would be for the next two weeks.
From arrival to finish I had no physical contact with any of the staff who were all in full protective gear. From flight arrival to heading home was a little more than an hour – I think I waited longer for my luggage in some destinations.
Hong Kong learned much from its SARS experience and we have in place many hygiene practices and systems that didn’t exist before 2003. Covered lift buttons, hand sanitiser in public spaces, thermal scanners, quarantine centres and wearing of masks are all legacies of SARS.
Although the government was perhaps a bit slow in starting quarantine, it was much quicker than others and hopefully Hongkongers will be more secure for it. Although I am perfectly healthy I didn’t mind being in quarantine if it would keep the rest of us safe.
The main thing I learned from my SARS experience is this is all temporary. Don’t give into fear. Common sense and good hygiene will keep you healthy. Things will return to normal and when we get through it we will have a better system in place and, be more prepared for the next pandemic.
Robert Rogers CSEP (Certified Special Events Professional) is principal of Events Man. This is an edited version of a blog that originally appeared on Robert’s Events Man’s blog