We’re (Not) All in this Together — How the Pandemic has Worsened Inequality and Discrimination in Hong Kong

Published Categorised as Features, University of Hong Kong

By Joshua Lee and Anisha Kukreja

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all walks of life in Hong Kong. The social lives of Hongkongers were put on hold as people cancelled social gatherings, avoided entertainment venues and bought takeaway instead of eating out. People experienced waves of stress, anxiety and depression as the virus spread around the community.

Throughout the pandemic, the government has urged the people of Hong Kong to fight the virus “together”. But, the events of the past year have not been a tale of unity in face of a common crisis, rather a story of disparity and inequality.

Hong Kong has some of the highest levels of inequality in the world, resulting in the pandemic affecting some members of the community significantly more than others. These disparities have occurred despite the fact that Hong Kong has experienced a relatively low incidence of COVID-19.

Part 1

Wealth and Income Inequality

How does income and wealth affect your experience of COVID-19?

Research is shedding light on how the impact of the coronavirus is being felt unequally across different levels of Hong Kong society. It is becoming increasingly clear how the city’s most disadvantaged and vulnerable groups are being made worse-off as a result of the pandemic.

“The deprived fared worse in every aspect of life … after the COVID-19 outbreak”, said Roger Chung Yat-nork, Assistant Professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Jockey Club School of Public Health and Primary Care. Chung noted that deprived groups were worse off in terms of economic activity, availability of personal protective equipment like face masks, personal hygiene practice, as well as overall well-being and health.

“Containment measures will have short-term and long-term health impacts that will risk widening health inequalities unless mitigation strategies are developed”, he added.

Who Gets COVID-19?

While everyone has a risk of catching the virus, the level risk does not appear to be spread equally across the different sectors of society. Research in Hong Kong suggests that your risk of infection may be related to your ability to work-from-home. Working-from-home is typically a privilege held mostly by higher-paid executives and professionals. This means that groups working in lower-paid service industries and so-called ‘elementary’ occupations could be at higher risk of infection during the pandemic.

Analysis of the COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong shows that some regions of the city have had much higher rates of infection throughout the pandemic than others. Many of these harder-hit regions have lower levels of household income and are considered clusters of poverty.

Mental Health

Mental health has been a prominent theme in recent discourse which got all the more highlighted in light of the pandemic. Research during the early months of the pandemic has shown that a significant portion of people had symptoms of depression and anxiety that could be associated with the impacts of COVID-19.

But, it is apparent that the pandemic has unequal effects on mental health depending on how wealthy you are. Researchers found that under the stress of COVID-19, people with fewer assets were much more likely to experience mental health problems than wealthier groups of people.

Job Security

Social distancing measures have had a big impact on businesses and the local economy. The unemployment rate has risen to record highs, despite several rounds of government stimulus intended to protect the livelihoods of the city’s workforce.

It is increasingly obvious that poorer members of the community are being hit harder by the economic fallout associated with COVID-19. Telephone surveys have shown that people who are socioeconomically deprived are more likely to experience job losses and job insecurity compared to those who are not deprived.

Education

Although schools are reopening as the fourth wave eases, many are still adopting hybrid teaching that involves both online learning and face-to-face classes.

Some students have no problem adapting to this new method of teaching, but for others it is an uphill battle. According to surveys conducted by the Society for Community Organisation, many children from poorer backgrounds experience cramped living spaces and technological limitations that prevent effective remote learning. Their research found that more than 40 percent of deprived families still do not have access to a computer connected to the internet for online learning.

Part 2

Asia’s ‘World’ City?

How does ethnicity affect your experience of COVID-19?

The #StopAsianHate movement presents a different facade in Hong Kong. Ethnic minorities such as South Asians from India, Pakistan and Nepal have long been at the receiving end of racial discrimination which has only amplified amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Census and Statistics Department, ethnic minorities made up eight percent of the total population in Hong Kong, translating to over 260,000 individuals. Although Hong Kong distinguishes itself as a melting pot and ‘Asia’s World City’ embodying pluralism and diversity, the reality appears deviated from the painted image.

Racist Remarks from Government

In January 2021, when Hong Kong was battling the fourth wave of COVID-19, Raymond Ho Lei-ming, a senior official from the Centre for Health Protection, sparked a controversy with his remarks that suggested the city’s ethnic minorities pose a greater risk to spreading the virus.

“They have many family gatherings and like to gather with fellow countrymen. They like to share food, smoke, drink alcohol and chat together”, said Ho. “They also need to share sanitary facilities with neighbours if the living environment is crowded”, he added.

Shalini Mahtani, co-founder of the Zubin Foundation, an NGO that aims to empower Hong Kong’s marginalised ethnic minorities, highlighted the importance of unconscious bias training for the government administration to be more respectful towards ethnic minorities.

“I don’t think Raymond Ho was intentionally discriminatory, but the impact and the effect of what he said was discriminatory. But I don’t believe that was his intention or he consciously discriminates”, Mahtani said.

“Unconscious bias training is important because we do not see our own biases. This particular episode highlights the need for the administration to take race discrimination seriously and to ensure that members of the administration go through unconscious bias training”, she added.

Discrimination in the News

News outlets such as the South China Morning Post (SCMP) and Apple Daily have also perpetuated a stereotypical narrative through their news framing during the COVID-19 crisis.

During the fourth wave, SCMP ran a headline that read: “Hong Kong fourth wave: officials warn members of ethnic minorities helping spread Covid-19 as another 107 cases emerge”. The headline was deemed as “not-objective”, “racist” and “suggestive” by members of ethnic minorities.

Later, Apple Daily published a story featuring an image of two South-Asian individuals. The image was captioned as “South Asians don’t wear masks” and another with “Southeast Asians take off masks to have a smoke”.

Ethnic minority groups in Hong Kong took to social media to voice their disdain against these reports. Bidhiya Sreshta, founder of NGO Aama Ko Koseli that focuses on gendered issues faced by women of colour in Hong Kong, addressed a letter to SCMP speaking against their racial narrative. The letter was further forwarded to SCMP and signed by more people. The media organization did not respond to them.

Instagram user “whysosumi” collated images of people trying to eat with their masks on as a way to voice their outrage against SCMP’S story, which they argue framed ethnic minorities in a discriminatory way.

Racism in the Workplace

Srishti Pal, 22, a Hong Kong local and a person of colour recently applied to a part-time job at a French restaurant in Hong Kong where she was asked to show the proof of vaccination because “she is brown” and “a threat to society responsible for spreading the virus”.

Later, one of the chefs also said she was “not clean” in front of customers as she adjusted her mask. The head chef made a remark about India being a “poor country” which is why she had come to Hong Kong”.

“I was actually devastated. It never hit me that this is discrimination. I just felt that no one should be treated the way she was treating [me]”, Pal said.

The construction sector has been one of the worst hit in terms of employment due to COVID-19 as per a report by the Legislative Council, but even more so for Maheshor Silpakar and other members in the sector belonging to ethnic minority groups.

After spending weeks finding a job to keep finances afloat, Maheshor Silpakar was immediately dismissed from a potential job interview when his racial identity was disclosed and he told them he lived in Mong Kok.

Ambush Lockdowns Fueled Discrimination

The so-called ‘ambush lockdowns’ in the Yau Tsim Mong district in February, aimed at containing the virus, worsened things for the ethnic minorities living in the area even after the lockdowns were lifted.

Mohit Silpakar, 15, described his experience of buying groceries at a store in the district.

“When I entered the store, they [ethnically Chinese people] were staring at me and passing remarks with each other. They immediately sanitised whatever I would touch at the store. It was humiliating”.

“When the locals were infected before this wave, we did not discriminate against them, but when the ethnic minorities got infected, they started cursing us…” Mohit Silpakar added.

Mahtani noted that instead of viewing ethnic minorities as being “dirty” because they live in subdivided, small quarters, the COVID-19 pandemic situation should shed light on their living conditions and housing crisis.

Jordan is home to many of Hong Kong’s ethnic minority community. Housing conditions in the area are poor due to the old age of buildings in the area. Photo: Anisha Kukreja

In another incident, Deliveroo blacklisted a customer in January who put a racist note saying “request no Indian rider (only Asian rider).” Foodpanda recorded similar incidents.

Gursangeet Singh, who has been working as a food delivery executive at Deliveroo since April 2019 recalled an instance where he was differentially treated because of his identity.

“The other day I was at Peel Street where nobody was wearing a mask and clearly flouting social distancing rules. I was just collecting my order from a restaurant and the police approached me, out of all people, asking for my HKID. Then they immediately started frisking me while I was putting the food in the storage space” Singh said. “Later, I saw the same policemen checking another Indian rider in the area”.

Mahtani argues that the stereotypical notions surrounding ethnic minorities are “learned behaviours”, and that even in a multicultural society such as Hong Kong, the status of ethnic minorities is constantly questioned.

“But where are you really from?”, they ask me as I tell them for the tenth time I really am from Hong Kong.

Shalini Mahtani speaks to Anisha Kukreja on Discrimination against Ethnic Minorities.

The COVID-19 crisis has brought the divisions and inequalities in Hong Kong’s society under the spotlight. It is now clear that Hong Kong’s marginalised communities have faced the impacts of the pandemic disproportionately.

Vaccines seem to offer an end to the COVID-19 crisis, but the social impact it has inflicted in Hong Kong — aggravating structural inequalities — will continue to ripple through the most disadvantaged for a long time.

Featured Image: Unsplash, Part 1 and Part 2 Header Images: Joshua Lee