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Coronavirus diaries: our man in Hong Kong

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An eye-witness account of how coronavirus is turning work and life upside down

Known for being a colourful and chaotic city, boasting a stunning harbour front, soaring skyscrapers and a bustling financial centre, Hong Kong is facing an economic abyss of untold proportions. Gone are the days of rowdy groups, late-night bars and champagne parties.

The small city state limped into 2020 with an ailing economy. One that had been decimated throughout 2019 by an incessant series of pro-democracy protests, many of which ended in extreme violence. After a brief lull over the festive period, news of a different type of threat started to spread from mainland China.

Since the report of the first coronavirus case on 22 January, the city has progressively restricted freedom of movement of its residents to stifle its dispersal. This started off with border controls, travel restrictions and contact tracing. These have been further enhanced with self-quarantining and then quarantining imposed by the government. More recently, pubs, clubs and fitness centres were forced to close.

In short, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a brutal double-whammy to a city that was already in trouble. For such a high density, heavily populated city, the streets are relatively thin on people. When I look out the windows of my apartment block, most of those who are there are wearing the trademark blue and white masks. 

Our minds don’t like this

The shortage of quality accommodation makes adhering to the social distancing rules particularly difficult. Compared to other major cities, apartments in the city are tiny and rents outrageously expensive. The compact space makes remote working difficult. In many cases, a virtual office equates to setting up a table in the kids’ bedroom. Trying to be productive whilst having a three-year-old tugging for attention is not the ideal platform for efficient work.

One piece of advice I would pass on is to carry out a Daily Reboot, which involves journaling any negative thoughts or concerns I have before start of the day. It is a practice for encouraging mindfulness and freeing up the brain to do productive work. When it comes to virtual meetings, what is often missing is the rigorous management of the intention and outcomes of the meeting. It’s very easy in a remote setup for people to remain quiet when input from specific people could be very valuable. In a virtual setup it is possible for project risks to remain out-of-sight and out-of-mind.

Living into the long haul

Now we are in the third month of fighting the virus and having to live and perform in cooped-up conditions, a mental toll is starting to be felt. The psychological mix is one of fear, anxiety, panic and dread. But above all, people just want a break: a release or respite from the continuous day-to-day messaging of staying home, washing hands, keeping apart and wearing masks.

The impact on public infrastructure projects

As the economy has ground to a halt, so has the construction industry. Of the large local clients, Mass Transit Railway (MTR), the rail operator, has several projects in the feasibility phase; and the Hong Kong Airport is pushing ahead with its programme of works associated with Three-Runway System.

But overall, construction activity has diminished markedly. Fifty thousand construction workers have lost their jobs; and a further 80,000 of the total 250,000 construction workforce have had their working hours reduced to one or two days per week.

Existing projects have also suffered from the closing of factories in China. This has led to supply-side shortages of materials impacting the progress of works, and subsequent impacts on critical paths.

The silver lining is not so clear

Having survived the SARS epidemic in 2003, HongKongers are a resilient bunch. Part of the resilience comes from a collective willingness to follow recommendations from the medical experts. There is less of a “don’t tell me what to do” in the local mindset.

This COVID-19 VUCA event will eventually pass into history. But as things currently stand, it would be naïve to expect that a “V-shaped” economic rebound and accompanying celebration will happen in Hong Kong. Local residents know that whilst media attention is currently focused on COVID-19, the underlying spectre of the pro-democracy movement is alive and well. COVID-19 is just a pause in the battle of political philosophies with the Mainland that still requires a resolution.

Watch out for Vip’s advice on how to lead on a project from a distance in the summer issue of Project journal, free for APM members. Find out more about membership and join our community of project professionals.

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Image: Angelina Bambina/


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