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A Crisis for International Urbanism

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought cities worldwide to a standstill and looks set to reshape the way we approach urbanism in the future. Hong Kong, symbolic of density and internationalism, offers a fascinating case study of the political ecology of urban risk and resilience in a city that is no stranger to the threat posed by infectious diseases.

The trauma of SARS has long fuelled fears of future epidemics, confirmed by Covid-19

In early 2003, SARS spread from an epicentre across the border in southern China, causing 1755 infections and 298 deaths in the Hong Kong SAR. The outbreak fostered a new-found paranoia about urban density and cross-border flows. Even prior to Covid-19, the legacy of SARS was clearly evident even walking around a busy shopping mall: signs next to escalators reassuring the public that the handrails are routinely disinfected, elevator buttons covered with regularly-sanitised transparent plastic sheets, and passers-by wearing surgical masks as a matter of habit. I can recall from personal experience filling out a landing card on arrival in Hong Kong confirming I was not experiencing any flu-like symptoms, and walking past digital temperature checkers at customs. These are just a few manifestations of the way Hong Kong has already grappled with reconciling dense globalised urbanism with the threat of infectious disease.

Carrie Lam at a coronavirus press briefing, Robert Ng, South China Morning Post

Hong Kong’ infectious disease protection measures sprung into action in January as the new coronavirus spread through Wuhan and Hubei Province. It is important to remember, however, that the arrival of the virus in Hong Kong followed many months of pro-democracy protests during which clashes with police and mysterious violent gangs had put the city in a state of turmoil. From early January, anti-China sentiments gained new momentum, with many calling for the – somewhat reluctant – government to close border crossings with the Mainland.

Healthcare workers went on strike to demand stricter border closures, Getty Images

In late January, the government closed busy rail and ferry links to the Mainland, whilst restricting all arrivals from Hubei, the epicentre of the outbreak. The decision was viewed by some as too little too late, with healthcare workers (a community ravaged by the SARS epidemic) striking in early February to demand a full closure of borders with the Mainland. Pressure from the central Chinese government may well have played a part in the citing of ‘logistical and business reasons’ as justification for keeping the border open. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has walked a tightrope between appeasing Mainland governmental pressure whilst responding to at times discriminatory local public sentiment.

Quarantine wristbands: the newest (mandatory) accessory for international arrivals, Sam Gellman, Twitter

As the crisis has continued to evolve, disease prevention measures broadened to acknowledge the threat posed by international arrivals, in a renewed identity crisis for Asia’s World City. In a measure initially viewed internationally with a degree of dismay, the city introduced a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arrivals from the 27th of January. All arrivals must first present themselves at a testing centre where they are each tested for the coronavirus, before moving into self-quarantine, closely monitored by electronic tracking bracelets and with the threat of fines or even imprisonment for breaking rules. These previously inconceivable measures have seen Hong Kong put its international identity on hold, with passenger traffic for Hong Kong’s beloved flag carrier Cathay Pacific dropping by an astonishing 99.6% in April.

Cathay Pacific has been forced to ground most of its fleet, Getty Images

Ultimately, Hong Kong has shown extraordinary resilience, with its combination of official measures and public caution having limited the spread, with only 4 deaths recorded to date. Still, the pandemic continues to pose big questions for Hong Kong’s strained Chinese identity, and for the very concept of globalised urbanism. As the global fallout continues, Hong Kong is a city to watch as the world negotiates political interests and environmental risks in a new era for urbanism.   

Hong Kong has successfully reduced its number of active coronavirus cases, Worldometer


Feature Image: Masked man sits on a near-empty MTR train during the SARS epidemic, Photo: Peter Parks/AFP, Accessed at Hong Kong Free Press:

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