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Fear of the New Coronavirus Is Changing How Hong Kong Celebrates Chinese New Year

Hong Kong was all set to celebrate its most important holiday, but the fear of a new coronavirus outbreak is dampening festivities.

by Marta Colombo
27 January 2020, 5:39am

A woman checking out traditional sweets at a Chinese New Year market inside a mall in Causeway Bay. All photos by the writer. 

This article originally appeared on VICE Asia

Chinese New Year will be very different for 25-year-old Anson Ma this year. The community manager who lives and grew up in Hong Kong is skipping the flower markets where her family usually gets together every year. She won’t be going door to door to neighbours’ houses and wishing them prosperity for the year ahead either.

“Usually, I go around the neighbourhood with my parents to visit each family, but I think we will just meet some important family members this year,” Ma told VICE.

Like her, many Hong Kongers are foregoing celebrations of the city’s most important holiday, in fear of the new coronavirus that originated from Wuhan, China. What was supposed to be a festive weekend filled with feasts and gatherings is now dampened by panic and worry.

As of January 24, the eve of Chinese New Year, at least 25 people in China had reportedly died due to the coronavirus. Confirmed cases of infection were recorded at 830, a rapid increase considering that earlier that week, the World Health Organization reported the number at 278. The virus has spread to cities around the world, including Hong Kong, where there are now two confirmed cases.

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Young Hong Kongers wear masks in Wan Chai.

Many in Hong Kong have been wearing protective masks since early January in fear of contracting the virus. Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, is now only a short high-speed train ride away, a service that started in 2018. Retailers are now running low on the N95 mask and have started doubling their prices.

For Hong Kongers like Ma, this scene is way too familiar.

“I don't want to get affected [by the coronavirus] as I have experienced the SARS outbreak back in 2003, as a kid, and the memory is still vivid in my head,” she said. “I want to make sure that I have no chance to be infected.”

The Severe acute respiratory syndrome or “SARS,” originated from Guangdong Province and spread all over Southern China and Hong Kong, where hundreds of people died in less than two years. It caused a pandemic and spread to 17 countries around the world.

While the new coronavirus was not previously identified in humans before the outbreak in December last year, the WHO said that it is a respiratory disease similar to SARS. What starts off as regular flu-like symptoms could escalate to shortness of breath, pneumonia, and, in severe cases, acute respiratory distress syndrome and sepsis.

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A convenience store employee restocking masks inside the Sai Ying Pun MTR station.

“People are much more cautious this time around because we don't want another outbreak,” Ma said. “SARS was a man-made disaster, so people have already started to wear masks in public transportation since the beginning of the year.”

Chinese New Year’s Eve is the busiest time in Hong Kong when people visit temples to offer food to the gods and pay their respect. The Man Mo Temple on Hong Kong Island and Wong Tai Sin Temple in Kowloon are two of the most popular in the city and get extremely crowded with people queueing in small spaces for hours. The city’s streets are also usually crowded, as many are busy buying food, traditional sweets, and flowers for their feasts.

But while every building, street, and mall are still adorned with the usual decorations, the atmosphere this year is very different. Instead of celebrations, security has become the top priority. Public events, like fireworks displays, were cancelled because of the anti-democracy protests that have taken over the city for months. And because of the new coronavirus, even fewer people plan to go out.

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The Wong Tai Sin Temple during Chinese New Year in 2018.

“Now that the virus has come to Hong Kong, we will need to be extra cautious especially because we have two young children,” Cherry Lam, a mother of two based in Hong Kong, told VICE. “We were also planning to go to a theme park on one of the holidays but now, we're not sure if it's safe to go anymore.”

They’ve also decided to refrain from meeting friends who plan to go to China for the holiday.

Every year, more than half a billion people travel for Chunyun (Spring Festival), creating the world’s largest annual migration. This begins 15 days before Chinese New Year, which is on January 25 this year, and lasts for more than a month. While authorities in Wuhan have recently quarantined the city in an effort to contain the spread of the deadly disease, travelling remains one of the main concerns for health professionals.

“I think that nobody was really taking the outbreak too seriously until last weekend, when the new tester was sent to all hospitals and the number of affected patients raised to hundreds in a day,” Qinglan Huang, 28, who works as a financial reporter in Hong Kong but is originally from Wuhan, said.

She planned to go home for the holiday but changed her mind after the situation in her hometown worsened.

“On my way to the airport, my mum called me three times and asked me to cancel my flight and informed me that the family had cancelled all annual dinners and family gatherings,” Huang said. “At that point, I really got scared and cancelled everything.”

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Students wear masks in Sai Ying Pun.

She also said that most of her friends in Wuhan announced on social media that they would not travel home to celebrate, as the severity of the outbreak has scared many families, who still remain in Wuhan. They are now trying to cope with the restrictions, like a travel ban, imposed by the government

“My aunt also told me that doctors wearing full protection uniform showed up at her residential complex, as someone probably got sick, and they had to clear the area or take the patient,” Huang continued. “She sent me the photo and that also really scared me.”

Elizabeth Sathianesan, 25, a marketing executive in Hong Kong, also cancelled plans to visit family in Fujian Province. Fears of another SARS-like pandemic looms large over her family, so they decided to celebrate in a different way.

“My family and I usually go to China and visit every family member to celebrate the holidays and have traditional Chinese meals but this year, we decided to Skype instead.”

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