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Our Man in Hong Kong-the Coronavirus Threat

Workers encased in plastic

Our Man in Hong Kong is Tim Wiseman, an American, a professional man who works for a multinational company.  Two years ago, after happily living and working in Colorado Springs for years, he accepted an overseas assignment with his firm in Asia.  A self-described Bumpkin, he began writing an email journal of his experiences, exploits, trials, and triumphs (surely there were some) as a stranger in a strange land.  In this series of posts, he describes what it’s like to be living in Hong Kong while the Coronavirus is spreading throughout Asia and parts of the rest of the world.  His accounts are humorous, as well as sobering, and he ends with an important message.

The Bumpkin Report — Living with a Potential Pandemic

January 28, 2020

When I moved to HK, one of my goals was to embrace more of an adventure lifestyle. To learn, travel, bumble (bumpkin-style) and generally explore and embrace this big ol’ world.  WOW.  I could not have predicted this type of adventure!!  First, I got to experience a full-on political revolution (Vive la revolution!!!) of the HK protests. Now, I get to experience living next to ground zero of a potential pandemic.

Zombie Apocalypse
First of all, I am extremely knowledgeable about infectious disease scenarios because I have seen every zombie movie, read every zombie book, and watched every episode of The Walking Dead.  All those exhaustive hours have not gone to waste.  Anyone who follows zombie scenarios knows THE most important consideration is…..are they SLOW zombies or FAST zombies? Can I get an AMEN!?  (Geoff, Caleb, Sam, Mikey – back me up here!)

Fortunately, Hong Kong has slow Coronavirus zombies. Slow zombies mean armor up (masks and hand sanitizer) and wait it out (stay in your apartment).

For those that don’t follow zombie movie . . . here is the situation on the ground.

In 2003, the SARS outbreak infected thousands and thousands and killed almost 300 hundred in Hong Kong, SARS is STILL spoken with a bit of fear and respect, therefore people here take the current situation very seriously.

Chinese New Year – Jan 24 to 29
Nearly 2 billion individual trips will be made during this 7-day Chinese New Year (CNY) holiday. It is THE holiday for China.  Think Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year rolled into one. This is terrible timing for a virus outbreak. Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers go back to mainland China to visit family. Then they will pour back over the border. This has everyone on high alert.

An interesting aside – there is a strict “family visiting formula” for CNY.  Day one of the holiday is designated to visit the husband’s family.  Day 2 is set aside to visit the wife’s family.  Day 3+ is reserved for extended family and then friends.

I was in the airport this weekend and 99% of people were wearing masks.  Hand sanitizer stations were set up everywhere and the temperature check station was in full operation. This is a good thing.

You’ve probably heard about the special masks that one should wear and that the global stocks are sold out. Fortunately, I had a nearly full box of masks left over from my cold last year so I didn’t have to do battle in the stores to get my supply.

However, get this! We are being told that when we throw away our disposable face masks in public that we need to tear or shred them because people will dig them out of the public trash cans, fold them, iron them and then repackage them to resell on the street.  I have no idea if this is a real thing or more of an urban myth.  Either way…ewww, gross!

Nearly empty shelves in stores
No hand sanitizer or face masks here–and sadly no limes for Gin and Tonic

Hand Sanitizer
I’ve been a one-man lecture series telling everyone that clean hands and antibacterial wipes are more important than the face masks. You rarely will be next to someone who coughs or sneezes on you, but you will definitely touch the train/bus/trolly/escalator/stair rail/elevator button that has been touched by 1,000 other people every hour.  This clean hand concept isn’t quite as well adopted as the masks, nonetheless all the hand sanitizer is sold out in stores as well. Fortunately, I had some prior stock from my cold last year and I did pick up some extra before the rush on the stores so I feel pretty well supplied. I also stocked up on bleach and cleaning supplies.

Empty Streets but not empty stores
Between the CNY holiday (everyone traveling) and the virus, the streets of Hong Kong are very quiet.  Even the traffic is diminished.  This is a good thing to prevent virus spreading. Walking around, you see 80%-90% of people are wearing masks.

I’ve also seen pictures of empty grocery stores making their way around social media.  This is 100% not true.  Masks and hand sanitizer, yes, but everything else is fine. Okay, my local store was out of limes for my gin and tonic and that was pretty tragic.

Work from home policy
The partners have been emailing back and forth the past few days and we decided on a work from home policy the rest of this week. This will give us a few more days to determine if things are going to get more serious or not. We are also documenting any travel (business or professional) for everyone as well as any visiting clients.

The button panels in every elevator that I’ve seen have been covered with sheets of plastic with a little sign.

Men playing poker using face masks as chips
Playing poker with masks as the chips

Many of the universities and schools have decided to keep closed until February 17.  As is well known, schools are giant germ factories. So this is a good thing as well.

And yet life goes on:
I’m still going out to dinner with friends, enjoying the city, and even went bowling with a bunch of friends the other day…and one of them was pregnant and she wasn’t too worried.  I’m even still hosting my poker night this weekend – but I will require mandatory hand washing!

In general, everyone is being diligent about prevention, but nobody I’ve come across is scared or panicked. I feel the same way- I’m paying close attention, but still living life (semi) normally.



February 24, 2020

Hello Bumpkin readers. I’m still alive and kicking!

But wow, I have dropped into the most amazing social experiment about human behavior!

Overall, things are moving along as normal as possible here.  We all wear our masks and carry hand sanitizer. I really appreciate how diligent the city has been and how serious everyone is taking it.  While the actual number of people infected is quite small, the transmission rate can be very high in such a densely populated place like HK.

As things have stabilized, life is sloooowly coming back into the city. The past month has been quite boring.  Most all social and public gathering have been cancelled. However, I was out every night last week with colleagues or friends and you could tell that places are getting busier.

Here is a random list of observations.

If you are interested in the local and global infection rate is…here are the nerdy data dashboards that we are all watching and have become the topic of conversation at every business and social gathering.

Schools Still Closed:
All schools, including University level, are still closed until mid-March.  I would not be surprised if that gets extended another few weeks just out of extra caution.  All schools are using virtual teaching techniques.  My friends with kids say that they meet with the teacher online, then do some homework and then connect again to discuss.  My friend who has a 6-year-old daughter said it’s not easy to get a bunch of 6-year-old’s to stay focused online for very long!

Business is Suffering:
Business overall is slowing down.  Many companies are reducing spending and cutting costs, and most all are impacted in some way from the virus.  Hotels, airlines, and restaurants are suffering the most.  Hong Kong restaurants are ALWAYS packed during lunch and dinner.  But today you may be one of only 3 or 4 tables and the rest are empty. In some ways it’s quite nice to just walk into any restaurant and get an open table without a reservation. But the food and beverage industry is taking a beating and places are cutting staff and even shutting down.  Airlines have cancelled dozens of flights every day.  The airport is very quiet.

Movie Theaters:
They were closed for a couple of weeks, but now you can go if you get your temperature checked and you wear your mask.  The theaters will seat every other row to keep space between patrons.

Workers encased in plastic
Workers encased in plastic (this is a joke but it’s not far from the truth)

Claustrophobic at work:
Our office has a MANDATORY policy of wearing a mask all day long at the office.  It’s quite claustrophobic.  You can’t breathe like normal.  Your glasses keep getting fogged up. Then when you put on your phone headset for calls and it can make you feel a bit smothered.  Gaaahhhh – can’t breathe!  Photo of office under plastic – this isn’t a real office – it was just for fun.

Panic Buying:
YES.  There is panic buying of toilet paper!  Can we be pragmatic for a moment?  One can technically get by without toilet paper.  That’s like number 74 on the list of survival supplies.  And for some reason it’s these little old Hong Kong ladies that are leading the panic buying charge.  They are slightly hunched over dragging 4-5 bags of toilet paper (each bag here is always 10-12 rolls). When the shipment comes in, they all race down to the store and clean it out.  So bizarre.  As for me, I accidentally walked into my local store the other day just as they stocked up and I now have enough TP to last a month!  I feel so wealthy! ?

Toilet Paper Theft:
Not kidding.  Here is an article from the Post about a knife point robbery of toilet paper.  Here is the extra funny part.  Halfway down the article there is a photo of someone’s apartment window stacked full of toilet paper.  I texted my neighbor to confirm my suspicions….and yes it’s MY BUILDING!  I have a genuine Toilet Paper crime syndicate in my building.  So many jokes in my mind that I can’t even process them!  See the photo below of window stacked with TP at my apartment building.


Other Bizarre Panic Buys:
Yes masks and hand sanitizer and even pump soap are impossible to find.  Rice and noodles get bought out regularly, but there have been some weird panic buys

  • Vinegar – based on the theory that it is a natural disinfectant
  • Spices – NO idea why

    Hoarding of toilet paper in apartments in Hong Kong
    Many people in Hong Kong are hoarding toilet paper in their apartments

I’ve stocked up on oatmeal, rice and quinoa.  And my freezer is stuffed with pizza rolls. Not really, but it’s full of food.  And, of course, Gin and Tonic for medicinal reasons!

Masks – Part I
If you don’t have a “connection” or source, and IF you can find them, the current street price is between $2US and $5US PER paper mask.  And even that will lead to a line out the door.  I was in Japan two weeks ago and every drug store I went to was sold out as well.  They said the Chinese are coming over and buying everything.

Masks – Part II – Resupply Shipments
I, along with all my local friends, are requesting shipments of masks and hand sanitizer from contacts all over the world.  And they are sold out EVERYWHERE. Africa, South America, Europe.  Everywhere. Special thank you to Steve, Carol, Ash, Winnie, and Bruce that were able to track down some supplies and send them my way.  If I get enough, I might open up my own black-market operation and make a little extra money on the side! ?

Masks – Part III – Gweilo’s think they are invincible:
This is an interesting cultural observation.  In general, when you see someone NOT wearing a mask, it’s a bit alarming and everyone stares.  However, when people are outside walking around for recreation on trails or at the beach, more often than not, it’s a Gweilo / western person.  Not always, but more than 50%.   I’ve discussed this with several locals to get their perspective.  The reactions are somewhere between “Gweilo’s just don’t understand how serious this is.” And “Those Gweilo are so #!$!$ arrogant.”  Overall, the local’s are a slightly resentful of the Gweilo attitude.

Masks Part IV – Volume buying on the grey market
One of my friends here is the general manager of a gold processing facility.  They refine gold for jewelers, technology companies, investors, etc.  He said that his workers will not come to work unless he provides the masks.  He needs 200 masks every day.  He told me he is part of a “grey market” network that buys and sells large volume masks.  He just made a purchase of 9000 paper masks for….get ready…$36,000.  He had to get special permission from his headquarters for the unusual type of expenditure.

Temperature Checks:
They are everywhere.  My office building.  My office at the reception desk.  Some residence buildings. Some shopping malls. Movie theatres. Even some banks.  But the most humorous experience was from this weekend.  I went with a friend to a beach on an island located only 100 yards from shore. But you must take a very small 6-person boat for the 90 second trip.  Yes, you guessed it, we had our temperature checked on the little boat.


Man in Hong Kong selling masks on the street
A street vendor selling face masks in Hong Kong–just the right gift for Valentine’s Day in a pandemic zone.

If you want to nerd-out, there is a lot of global chatter about how completely useless temperature checks are, especially at airports.  The benefit is mostly psychological.

In summary:
All irony and amusement aside, this has been fascinating to watch unfold and it confirms two long-held beliefs.  1) Individual people are rational – but when we get together in groups, we become idiots. 2) DO NOT rely on the government – self-reliance is still the only way to go.

Lastly – my advice in these circumstances is to pay attention and get your supplies early. It’s always a good idea to have some ‘emergency’ supplies on hand.  And if something does go wrong (hurricane, snow storm, lengthy power outage, Covid-19 virus) then GET your supplies FIRST.


All photos courtesy of Tim Wiseman.  Used with permission.


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