Grocery runs in Asia’s financial powerhouse have begun to remind me of shopping in Russia in the chaotic summer of 1998. You grab what you can find, and if there is a queue, you consider joining it. Surgical masks and sanitizer gel are bartered for; detergent shelves are bare. A run on toilet paper last week, after an online rumor, was reminiscent of Venezuela.
Crowds are irrational everywhere, and social media hardly helps. Yet the palpable anxiety in coronavirus-hit Hong Kong these days suggests worrying levels of distrust in a city where citizens have always expected private enterprise at least, if not the state, to keep things ticking over. Both have failed miserably, preparing inadequately even after the SARS outbreak that killed almost 300 people in the city in 2003.
A fragile state is usually defined by its inability to protect citizens, to provide basic services and by questions over the legitimacy of its government. After an epidemic and months of poorly handled pro-democracy demonstrations, Hong Kong is ticking most of those boxes. Add in a strained judicial system, and the prognosis for its future as a financial hub looks poor.
A snapshot of the situation first. Hong Kong is not, at least for now, as grim as parts of mainland China, where the outbreak of novel coronavirus has people building barricades, or being followed around by drones. This isn’t Wuhan. Yet after 26 confirmed cases and one death, the semi-autonomous territory of more than 7 million people is in lockdown, with schools, universities and museums closed. A $360 billion economy, torn apart by months of anti-government protests, is in tatters. Masks are in such short supply that some clinics have closed, and queues snake daily outside pharmacies. Official declarations, meanwhile, have attracted derision on social media: One senior politician argued in the Legislative Council that disposable masks could be steam-cleaned, ignoring the remonstrations of the city’s Centre for Health Protection.
For someone who arrived recently from orderly Singapore, it’s a mess that’s hard to comprehend.
To be fair, though, Singapore isn’t run by a bunch of commies.