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Woman from Medford describes life in Hong Kong under lockdown

A few weeks ago, Holly Callaway was in the middle of a FaceTime call with her brother when people in hazmat suits knocked on her door.

Callaway, a 35-year-old former Medford resident, thought it was probably a neighbor coming to see if her 3- and 6-year-old children wanted to play.

Quarantine protocols for southern Hong Kong hadn’t started yet, though the novel coronavirus had been inching ever closer to the town of Stanley, where she lives.

When she opened the door and saw four people in hazmat suits, she thought of the virus.

“My first thought ... was ‘Do I have it?’” Callaway said during a video call.

That wasn’t the case, though the interruption did involve the virus. The building manager, also present, filled her in. There had been a confirmed case in their building, a man in his early 50s. The building manager handed Callaway a form that contained information on how to clean and sanitize properly. A professional cleaning crew already was at work in the hallway.

They looked like the Ghostbusters, Callaway said, but the nozzles they held didn’t shoot out proton-charged streams intended to trap misbehaving spirits.

“It was a fog machine, but it’s bleach,” she said. “Fumigation, but bleach.”

Later that day, she saw the man’s case had been recorded on a government website. The site contains all the usual information one might see on a state or county public health website in the U.S., but it also contains an in-depth mapping and tracking system for the disease, each confirmed case its own file of information that’s available to the public.

Those cases are broken out individually, detailing the age and gender of the patient, the date their case was confirmed, whether the case is imported or local, and whether the person remains hospitalized. Where patients live is available, and there’s a detailed map of the places mentioned.

“(You can see) where they’ve traveled, where they’ve been, stores that they’ve visited,” Callaway said. “It is crazy. It is so crazy, especially from an American standpoint.”

“It’s a very foreign concept, of course, but I think I’m sort of used to it,” she added.

Last week, Hong Kong began to ease lockdown restrictions it had imposed as the pandemic arrived.

“I feel great. Our cases have been low and it finally feels like we can breathe again,” Callaway said.

She said increased hygienic measures such as thorough handwashing and an increased likelihood of people staying home if they are sick will be permanent results of the pandemic but hopes a sense of normalcy will return.

“People are saying, ‘This is going to change the way that we live now,’ and I’m like, ‘Some things are probably for the better.’ Now that our kids are washing their hands for 20 seconds, that’s pretty great,” Callaway said. “(But) we have to be able to congregate and be in community with one another. That needs to return. But the health parts are probably good for us to have.”

Teaching abroad

Callaway has lived in Hong Kong since July 2019.

She’s also lived in South Korea, where she taught English. A year before that move, Callaway and her husband lived in Portland. Newly married and just out of college, the 2008 recession hit. They jumped at the chance to work overseas, living in South Korea from 2009 to 2011. They returned stateside and lived in Los Angeles until July 2019, then moved again so her husband could teach at a Hong Kong international school.

“We sold our house within weeks; sold most of our things, and decided to go on this adventure,” Callaway said. “We were riding on adrenaline fumes the entire time coming here, because it’s the chance of a lifetime.”

Her family moved to Stanley, where many people who moved from outside the country live.

The 2019 Hong Kong protests, prompted by a bill that would have allowed citizens to be extradited to the Chinese mainland, began a month or so after her family arrived. Demonstrations ramped up in intensity and force, with several clashes between police and protesters.

Schools were shut down for 10 days.

The COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan occurred a few months later.

Callaway’s parents had just returned home following a visit, and her husband returned to the classroom while Callaway stayed home with her 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter.

A month later, during the Chinese New Year, parents across Hong Kong received a letter from the country’s board of education. The break was to be extended due to the mainland coronavirus outbreak. Two weeks at first, then a month. The news seemed ill-timed, gas on a calming fire.

“With everything going on with Hong Kong and China right now, the protests, it was already tense,” Callaway said.

Demands for border closures between Hong Kong and China, intended to slow the spread of the virus, intensified. Chinese New Year celebrations made that a challenging prospect.

“That’s when everyone goes,” Callaway said. “It’s like Christmas or Thanksgiving here. It’s crazy.”

Hong Kong health care workers had gone on strike. Some restrictions went into place, but people could still come and go, Callaway said.

“People were able to get in really easily. Via boat; via bridge; via train. Doctors and health care workers said, ‘You have to (close the borders), otherwise we’re going to get slammed with this.’”

In some ways, the country remains shell-shocked from the 2002-03 outbreak of SARS — Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome — Callaway said. That disease, which first appeared in southern China, infected more than 8,000 people worldwide and led to 774 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

“They all knew what to do,” Callaway said referring to Hong Kong residents. “Even though we were still open for a while, everyone was wearing masks. I mean everyone. Everywhere you went. The bus drivers, the taxi drivers, everyone. You could feel that it was really serious and people were taking it seriously immediately once the numbers were rising and rising in Wuhan. And once Wuhan went on lockdown, it was like ‘OK, we need to do the same.’

“Even if the government kept the borders open, the citizens here were so responsible,” Callaway added.

In her travels to other Asian countries, Callaway saw the same degree of readiness from residents. While living in South Korea during the 2009 H1N1 — swine flu — outbreak, there were daily temperature checks within the public schools where she and her husband taught English.

The gravity of the COVID-19 outbreak struck Callaway when the illness spread to the U.S.

“This is scary now. Because now it’s hitting people that I am very far from,” Callaway said, especially her parents.

A developing situation

Despite the school cancellations, Hong Kong residents were initially not required to shelter in place. Callaway still had play dates with her circle of friends. Confirmed case numbers remained low.

“It felt safe,” Callaway said of those early days. “Where it was spreading was on the other side of the island.”

But the contagion crept closer. A case popped up at the high school, then one in Stanley. Then there was one across the street.

Then the hazmat crews showed up.

Government protocols became more strict, Cleaning crews bleaching walkways became a regular occurrence. Playgrounds closed. Getting together in groups of more than four people was prohibited.

Callaway’s husband would sometimes leave home to work at the school, though he also worked remotely.

Grocery stores and pharmacies remained open. Some restaurants did, too.

Callaway took in the news reports in cycles, needing breaks: fully invest, pull back, repeat.

“It’s riding the waves,” she said. “I’d rather have that on the whole than feel in the dark.”

Hong Kong this week began relaxing restrictions. Limits on group gatherings in public places increased from four to eight people.

“Maybe in another 14 days we will raise the number of eight to 10, to 12, to 15 and so on,” Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said at a May 5 news conference.

Some children will soon return to school, though strict social distancing standards will be in place. Some pubs were able to reopen, though the government said it would impose restrictions on live music and dancing.

Watching from a distance

Callaway said it’s been difficult to watch U.S. states grapple with timetables for reopening, especially from so far away.

“It’s just hard,” Callaway said. “I’m feeling for everyone, because it’s so unprecedented, and I wish that I could be close to the ones that I love, to be going through that with them. I’m just feeling the distance now. We came here because we wanted an adventure, and boy, have we gotten one.”

Her daughter has been rolling with the punches. She likes to mask up. After seeing an ad on a city bus for how to properly sanitize rooms — complete with an illustration of germs attacking a woman cleaning a bathroom floor — she drew her own rendering of germs at play.

There have been moments of difficulty with her son. During a recent walk, he began to protest walking up a hill; a normal kid reaction, but Callaway said this one was different, more intense.

“I told my husband to take my daughter and I hung back with him,” Callaway said.

She ran through a list of possible causes for his distress. It turned out to be COVID-19.

“He said, ‘I don’t want to go because I’m scared that someone will have the virus and give it to me,’” Callaway said. “And, of course, that tells me that I’m talking about it too much around him. He’s a little sponge. He can pick things up.”

Callaway’s family plans for a flight back stateside later this summer, knowing they’ll have to quarantine themselves when they arrive.

“We’re going to do it ourselves no matter what,” she said.

The idea of having loved ones together is a comfort. COVID-19 has prompted many thoughts over the last few months, and the importance of family is high on the list, she said.

“I think I’m realizing what matters,” Callaway said. “When I think of the future, I want to be within driving distance. I want to be closer to the ones I love.”

Reach web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanPfeil.

Holly Callaway, formerly of Medford, with her family in Kowloon, Hong Kong watching a light show that happens each evening on the harbor. (Photo courtesy of Callaway)
Holly Callaway, formerly of Medford, waits for a bus with her family in downtown Hong Kong. The territory has recently started easing restrictions after weathering the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Callaway)