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How the Coronavirus Disproportionately Affects the Hong Kong Working Poor

Chloe Tse
April 23, 2020

Citizens from across the world are experiencing the effects of COVID-19, including our HKIS community, with school closures, encouragement to work from home, and calls for social distancing. However, this pandemic has a heightened effect on the working poor in Hong Kong, highlighting economic inequality. Most HKIS students are fortunate enough to remain economically stable during this crisis, but this is not the reality for the majority of the city’s population. It is imperative that we are considerate of the larger effects this pandemic has on the general population and remain vigilant in our efforts to combat it.

Working from Home

Many of the low-income workers in Hong Kong hold blue-collar jobs, which include constructor workers, grocery cashiers, custodians, and delivery truck drivers. While white-collar workers are permitted to embrace working from home, this option is unavailable to these workers because the job must be done in-person to be effective. Moreover, these workers are often essential to the everyday needs and tasks of the general population, so they are requested to work through this pandemic, despite the health risks they face.

“On the rare occasions I leave my house, I noticed that there is less security around my compound,” Anna Kwan (10) said. “It is also dangerous for the guards as they are touching doors and other public surfaces.”

Moreover, low-income workers often are not offered paid sick days. For those living from hand to mouth, a decrease in salary is the difference between going to sleep with a full belly, as opposed to an empty stomach. Thus, many workers prioritize making money to pay for their basic needs, such as food, water, and rent, rather than contracting the disease.

“The coronavirus is going to be financially challenging for many workers in Hong Kong. Even before the pandemic, some people were already living from paycheck to paycheck. Many in our HKIS community tend to come from the upper class, and our families have been affected as well. On a larger scale, the global economy has been taking several hits too,” Anna said. 

Social Distancing is a Luxury

Hong Kong is notorious for its high population density, with 7.5 million people living in a small area of 1000 kilometers square. In such a city, the price of real estate skyrockets to appalling levels, so many low-income residents are forced to live in “cage homes.” Cage homes are around as large as a bed, just enough to accommodate a person. They are often stacked on top of one another so landowners can maximize profits from a single living space. The tenants of these cage homes often share a communal bathroom and kitchen.

Governments around the world are calling for the social distancing of around six feet due to COVID-19. However, in Hong Kong where tenants live in “coffin-like” spaces due to the unaffordable housing prices, this condition cannot be met. Tenants are forced to remain in close proximity with others, which aids the spread of COVID-19 and imperils their health.

“I think it’s unrealistic to expect social distancing because many people lack the space or the means to do so. There are social groups that have been helping, like Impact HK, but it is not safe for them to go around either,” Irene Park (10) said.

On the other hand, for the upper class of Hong Kong, social distancing is a luxury presented to them. However, many view it as an inconvenience to their social lives, and disregard protocols to stay at home in favor of their personal enjoyment. Despite repeated warnings by international governments to self-isolate so frontline workers and vulnerable demographics are not put at risk, social gatherings and nightlife culture are still pervasive around the city.

“We all need to stay inside,” said Anna. It will be safest for workers who need to physically complete their job, their families and their communities, especially since the two-week incubation period exacerbates this issue.”

School Closures

The Hong Kong government has requested all schools to close down effective from early February for around 10 weeks (at the time this article was published). Many schools, most notably international ones, have continued their learning via online means, such as Zoom. However, many under-funded schools and lower-income families do not have easy access to technological services to continue learning. This means that students from lower-income families often encounter large obstacles in keeping up with their school curriculum and assignments. 

“Many of my relatives attend local schools in Hong Kong. It is a pity that they are losing half a year of schooling already. Currently, they are mostly doing online work assigned to them, but it isn’t much,” Anna Kwan (10) said. 

In Hong Kong’s competitive academic environment, where several points off in the Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) can significantly affect future education and career paths, these students are at a disadvantage.

The Role of the HKIS Community

The HKIS community has many resources at its disposal, and in this time of crisis, it is important to remember the hardship many workers are going through. Every action has the potential to make a difference: a simple “thank you” to security guards or grocery store cashiers are enough to lift their spirits and make the crisis at hand more bearable. Taking this a step further, donations to local groups that are playing an active role in mitigating this pandemic will contribute to efforts as well. We, as a community, must strive to express gratitude to the essential workers of our economy who are keeping this city running so we can all remain safe. 

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