Exclude Living In Hong Kong

COVID-19 lessons learned from Hong Kong

By: Rebecca Simpson

At the time of writing this story, there were 417,698 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the world. Only 386 of those are in Hong Kong. With a population of about 7.5 million, we are doing well compared to Western countries of the same size. Austria (5,283) and Switzerland (9,877) share a similar population but a much steeper curve of cases. With so many other Western countries suffering, we asked expats in Hong Kong – from business leaders to school heads – what COVID-19 lessons could the West learn from our city?

Our panel

Jacinta Reddan, CEO, Australian Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong

Tara Joseph, President, American Chamber of Commerce Hong Kong

Jennifer Campbell, Managing Director, The Giles Agency

Dr Robin Lister, Headmaster, Malvern College Hong Kong

Ben Keeling, Principal, Shrewsbury Hong Kong

Karrie Dietz, Head of School, Stamford American School Hong Kong

Farah Siddiqi, Co-Founder of HK Moms quarantine support group

What Hong Kong has done well

“Hong Kong has shown itself to be incredibly agile and decisive in response to COVID-19. Continued vigilance and forensic contract tracing combined with a whole community commitment to ‘flattening the curve’ has seen Hong Kong respond well. Of course, Hong Kong people know only too well the public health risk caused by an epidemic, and the memory of SARS has prompted a swift response from across the business sector as well as by individuals.” – Jacinta Reddan

“The Hong Kong community understood social distancing before it was a catch phrase and more importantly before it was mandated. We were able to contain the virus only because as a community wholly we naturally separated from each other and slowed down.” Farah Siddiqi

“Hong Kong was the epicentre of SARS, which caused many deaths. Also it was the first time in many years that such a mysterious illness gripped the city and this caused panic. Hong Kong learned many lessons from that worrying time. People learned how to behave during times of a mysterious illness and support each other. They learned how to wear masks and cope with the anxiety. The government also learned how to cope with a pandemic. Now with COVID -19, people know how to behave and they know how to be supportive of each other. Hong Kong people are also aware that we live in small spaces so we must be extra vigilant.” – Tara Joseph

“Hong Kong’s experience with the SARs outbreak in 2003 is the biggest contributing factor in keeping the cases of COVID-19 under control here. As soon as the epidemic broke in Hubei province, Hong Kongers leapt into action, or rather locked down into action. There was no need for the government to put curfews in place because the public did exactly what they knew was best and stayed indoors, distancing themselves from everyone. We were hygienic with face masks and hand sanitiser.” – Jennifer Campbell

COVID-19 lesson
Jacinta Reddan leads the largest Chamber of Commerce in the city

What Hong Kong businesses have done well

“In true Hong Kong style, the city has also adopted new technology quickly and efficiently. This has included comprehensive temperature screening at most public buildings and offices; along with the introduction of wristband quarantine technology more recently. The Hong Kong Government’s comprehensive daily communications regarding new cases, public hospital response, details on each new case and critical medical advice has been excellent. We have been updating this each day on our website ensuring that our members have access to validated, factual expert information.” – Jacinta Reddan

“In addition to SARS, the business community has endured a tumultuous year in 2019. We have coped with the Hong Kong protests, which required emergency measures at work and addressing employee anxiety. As a result, managers have learned to be flexible. They’ve learned how to conduct work at home. This turned out to be very useful during COVID-19.” – Tara Joseph

“About 80% of businesses we work with in Hong Kong were swift to implement working from home measures. This has reduced the number of people in the streets, offices and on public transport. It certainly lowers the risk for those who can’t work from home to have the space to do so. We work in a co-working office, the Hive, and they have done a great job of increasing sanitation in the office. They have been clear communicators which has helped us in making decisions about returning to work (though, with the second surge of cases now, we are back to full work from home).” – Jennifer Campbell

COVID-19 lesson
Tara Joseph, AmCham President

Must-have elements for businesses facing long-term closures

“We recently hosted a webinar featuring expert psychologists who recommended the following:

  • Maintain routine – this helps keep a healthy mental perspective. Start the work day at the same time as if you were going into the office.
  • Maintain high touch contact with staff – allow avenues for social chit-chat so staff feel engaged and so that the only communication is not limited to business.
  • Allow flexibility – accommodate different limitations such as families with limited Wi-Fi or those with young children.
  • Use video webinar technology – especially for group/team meetings.
  • Let staff know they can confide in leadership – sharing concerns about working from home or health issues associated with themselves or their families.
  • Recognise that everyone – including leadership – is suffering anxiety in these unprecedented times.

– Jacinta Reddan

“Technology is key. Staff require laptops, mobile phones and access to teleconferencing and other ways to hold meetings. Cloud technology is also important, as is internet security. Along with modern technology, managers must be able to reach out to their staff and ensure that, not only are they doing their work, but that they still feel involved. So it goes beyond supplying technology to staff. Human outreach is still required.” – Tara Joseph

“Get yourself set up with a platform other than email where everyone can communicate with each other. Emails are great for formal updates, but teams need to have casual conversations too, just like you would in the office. We use Slack and have channels for the whole company, for project teams, for sharing fun memes, for inspiration and more. Obviously getting work done is a priority, but so is enjoying the day. Another important element is access to the server so teams can carry out their work as they would do at their desk – never before has the folder structure been tested more!” – Jennifer Campbell

COVID-19 lessons
Jennifer Campbell, Managing Director, The Giles Agency shares her COVID-19 lessons

Advice to business leaders outside Hong Kong

“Remember that despite having to stay away from or keep a distance from each other, we are all still human. One very important aspect of being human is social contact. So it’s important stay in touch with your teams and it’s also important to be as supportive leader in these difficult times and also lead by example.” – Tara Joseph

“Number 1 is to continue to be the clear, reassuring, positive leader your business needs at this time. Team members will be facing a whole raft of uncertainty and anxiousness. So, check in with everyone as often as you can. I use Slack to directly message team members and see how they are doing. The next COVID-19 lesson is to be as flexible as your business will allow. If you know team members have kids at home, see if deadlines can be moved to accommodate that. This allows them to get the work done when it suits them, rather than the usual 9-5. And finally, start putting long-term plans into place early. I’ve spoken to many in the industry and the overriding feeling is that we are in for a very challenging six months with markets not picking back up until Q4 2020. So, what is the best approach for your business to get through with as little impact as possible?” – Jennifer Campbell

DR ROBIN LISTER outside in Malvern College
Dr Robin Lister, Principal of Malvern College Hong Kong, shares the must-have elements for school success

Must-have elements for schools facing long-term closures

“Schools which already have digital technology embedded in their approach to learning and teaching will naturally be at a great advantage.  Must-have elements for successful teaching during long-term school closure are:

  • Infrastructure – high-speed internet connection and hardware (computers, laptops and/or iPads) – for both teachers and pupils
  • Training – familiarity of teaching staff and pupils with select online learning platforms
  • Mindset – willingness to learn new things and to adjust to changed circumstances
  • Attitude – independence, resilience and grit; online learning can be an isolating experience for both teachers and pupils
  • Flexibility – instead of trying to replicate the school day exactly, allow for a flexible schedule. Families are different, and there is no “one size fits all” solution
  • Balance – focus on physical and mental wellbeing
  • Connection – keep in regular contact with pupils through email, phone or video calls.

– Dr Robin Lister

“With such rapidly changing circumstances, a responsive internal network has proven essential to our ability to forecast, assess, debate, decide and communicate in an effective and efficient way. School leaders face an impossible range of challenges during such unprecedented times. It is critical that they are surrounded by energy, optimism, intelligence and commitment.” – Ben Keeling

“The use of online apps and different technologies, and having a structure is important for effective learning. Stamford’s online learning follows the daily schedule of a regular school day. We continue to deliver our curriculum, including specialist subjects, virtually on Google Classroom or SeeSaw, or both, depending on the grade. All of our students participate in our online learning from home, and we know some have travelled to other time zones. So, Stamford is combining regularly scheduled live classes with downloadable content. Teachers have been sharing interactive read-alouds, involving students in science experiments using household items, and personalising learning with small group tutorials.” – Karrie Dietz

COVID-19 lessons from Hong kong schools
Shrewsbury International School Principal Ben Keeling has been advising schools in other markets

Principal-to-principal advice

“Keep calm and put the necessary measures into place, taking a phased approach as required.  Maintain regular communication with all members of the school community. Be clear in what approaches you feel are most effective and sustainable in an online environment. Meanwhile, remaining open and ready to take pupils’ and parents’ feedback on board. The online programme will evolve, and you are likely to have to tweak your approach as the school closure becomes more prolonged. Encourage pupils and teachers to limit screen time and balance their workload – we need to be careful not to increase anxiety in an already stressful time. And finally, be kind to yourself throughout the process and look after your own physical and mental well-being. The situation is unprecedented and we are all on a steep learning curve.” – Dr Robin Lister

“A significant portion of my time during the last few weeks has been committed to providing support to schools in Europe preparing for the suspension of usual services. Key themes have included:

  • Full campus assessment – to include points of entry and working habits
  • The selection of a digital learning platform – intuitive access and secure control top the list of requirements
  • Planning for digital fatigue – the early excitement soon fades
  • The identification of silver linings – when the dust settles, we will emerge stronger and more united.”

– Ben Keeling

“The school suspension experience in Hong Kong confirms the importance of innovation in education. Schools should explore creative collaborations beyond classroom walls, invest in education technology and professional development that facilitate creativity and flexibility in teaching. It is also important to keep home-school communication open. After the previous school closure in November, we reflected on our online learning processes to find opportunities to improve the experience across all subjects in our curriculum. We also shared a plan with families and students, and their feedback helped us create virtual learning.” – Karrie Dietz

Karrie Dietz, Principal of Stamford American School Hong Kong, shares her insights on school closures

Stronger together

Our friends at AustCham recognise that many businesses are hurting. So they’ve introduced a membership campaign that focuses on the underlying principle for all businesses: “Stronger Together”. AustCham is the largest Chamber in the city, and membership will give you tools to help navigate this extraordinarily challenging time. Stronger Together with AustCham


Do you have a COVID-19 lesson to share? Email our editor at editor@expatliving.hk!

For more information on life in Hong Kong, visit our Living in Hong Kong section or check out these stories:

Returning to Hong Kong and quarantine – what to expect
Tips for entertaining at home
Adventure guide to HK’s outlying islands