Posted by: Bruce Einhorn on May 4, 2009
The swine flu outbreak has thrown many of my Hong Kong neighbors off their stride. Hong Kong, after all, is used to being at center stage of global health scares. Avian flu? We had it first, conducting a mass cull of birds back in 1997. SARS? It may have started in China but only when the disease hit Hong Kong in March of 2003 did the disease start terrifying people around the world. Other flu outbreaks? Just last year, the government shut down schools for two weeks amid worries of a new flu strain breaking out. And until now, the world’s most recent flu pandemic was the Hong Kong flu of 1968.
With a new pandemic threatening, though, Hong Kong is strangely on the sidelines, a bit player in a show in which it used to be a star. The new flu outbreak seems to have started in Mexico and spread from there to the U.S. and other countries. The news on Friday of Hong Kong’s first confirmed case has sent some locals scurrying back to their SARS-era stash of surgical masks, but their hearts don’t seem to be in it. I went with my family to the movies yesterday at the swankiest shopping mall in town and while just about every employee there wore a mask (probably because they had no choice), almost none of the shoppers could be bothered. And while the media last week reported the government planned to shut down schools as soon as there was a confirmed case of swine flu in Hong Kong, once we finally did get our first case – and it turned out to be not a local person but a Mexican tourist on his way through town from Shanghai – the government quarantined the tourist’s hotel but decided schools could stay open after all.
Local officials caught a break with the timing of the first case, coming just as the Mexican government scaled back its figures on the number of swine-flu deaths. Viruses can mutate, of course, and things could still get much worse, but for now there are hopeful signs this outbreak isn’t going to be the Big One that public-health experts have long feared. The Hong Kong stock market seems to have taken a been-there-done-that attitude to the whole thing, with shares gaining over 5% in trading today.