Vigorously practicing social distance at home is not an option for Lum. He lives in one of Hong Kong’s “cage houses”, subdivided apartments that often only have room for a bed and clothes. His nearest neighbor is a few meters away, in the same room.
Caged houses are generally less than 100 square feet, only 25 square feet larger than most city jail cells. Bathrooms are mostly shared and often there is no kitchen – just plug in hot plates. The units are mainly divided by makeshift or removable walls.
Lum, who is unemployed, said he pays 1,800 Hong Kong dollars ($ 232) for an apartment divided between 10 people.
Despite the virus since January, Hong Kong has registered fewer than 1,050 infections and 4 deaths, so few citizens disagree with the restrictions. But that does not make them easy to live with.
“I’m so alone,” said Lum. “There is not the same atmosphere on the streets as before. So few people are sitting in the parks. People watched children play and the elderly play badminton. “
How long can people like Lum stay at home?
“Do you really think we are afraid of the prison here?”
Hong Kong has a reputation abroad, a rich global financial center, populated by wealthy bankers who live in extremely expensive apartments overseeing the city’s iconic skyline.
While this lifestyle exists, it is far from the norm – Hong Kong is one of the most economically unequal places in the world, where about one in five people live in poverty. One of the biggest problems that attracted protesters to the streets during the months of political unrest last year was the skyrocketing house prices.
The virus has only deepened this inequality, as the poor are forced to retreat to their cages.
Cheung Lai Hung and Chan Yuk Kuen, two retired women in their late 50s, say that since the pandemic, they spend 10 hours a day in their 100 square foot apartments. They spend time watching TV, listening to music or taking a nap.
“We are afraid of the current situation,” said Cheung.
There is another factor that forces many to stay at home: job insecurity.
Jeff Rotmeyer, the founder of the charity Impact HK, which helps the needy in the city, said that many people seeking help from the organization recently reported having their hours reduced, or worse, losing their jobs.
Others were evicted from their homes because they could not pay rent, said Rotmeyer.
“I don’t think people understand how far Hong Kong is on the brink when it comes to people who live in apartments or boxes of less than 100 square feet,” said Rotmeyer.
“A hiccup, like a job loss or a late government check, will lead to homelessness. These owners do not forgive people. They are not flexible. And they are very, very quick to change your locks and evict you if you don’t pay a month’s rent. “
On an unusually cold Tuesday in early April, Lum joined a group of more than 100 people lined up up for a free dinner in the Hong Kong district of Tak Kok Tsui, west of Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po – two of the poorest and most densely populated areas of the city.
The queue on the thin sidewalk was longer than usual, Rotmeyere said, and included middle-aged people like Lum, elderly retirees and recently unemployed people.
The desire to eat seemed to outweigh the need to practice social distancing, as people huddled in the long line.
Chu Kin Lik, a 61-year-old HK Impact volunteer, stood in front of trying to separate people.
“You see a little more panic and fear in the people, because the truth is that if they don’t get food here with us, they probably won’t eat,” said Rotmeyer. “We try to socially distance these individuals when they line up, but it’s difficult. “
Everyone CNN queued for food was aware of the need for social distancing. Many have said they practice better hygiene and wash their hands more often, as advised by the government. But few seemed to understand how far they should be away from others – groups should stay within 1.5 meters (5 feet) of each other according to government guidelines.
Asked about the difficulties of maintaining an appropriate distance from each other in these small living spaces, several residents of caged houses shrugged and declared that everyone in their subdivided units had just closed their doors.
“Obviously it’s not fair because we have to get away from people. But if that’s what we have to do, we will do it, ” said Cheung, one of two retired women. “Hopefully this will help wipe out the virus sooner. “
“It’s very lonely”
City officials announced $ 37 billion in measures to ward off the economic effects of the global pandemic, including multiple tax breaks, rent assistance for low-income tenants in social housing, low-rate loans interest paid by the government to small and medium-sized businesses; and a cash payment of 10,000 Hong Kong dollars ($ 1,290) to all permanent residents over the age of 18.
However, less has been said about the psychological impact of self-isolation in a tiny space and the mental toll of time spent socializing.
The Hong Kong government recently allocated about Hong Kong dollars ($ 6.5 million) a year for Hong Kong’s “mental health promotion and public education initiative,” said a spokesperson, and created a website to help people in this space. He asked the NGOs to make certain services free.
“It was indeed difficult to practice social distance in a densely populated and dynamic city like Hong Kong”, The spokesman said in a statement, adding that people were not forbidden to go out and that many had visited the city’s countryside parks.
For Lum, the respite from the mental health effects of the pandemic cannot come soon enough. He no longer talks to his family, which makes his loneliness and fear more difficult.
He often spends time sitting alone and drinking beer. By his own admission, this is not a panacea.
“It’s very lonely. I have a few beers, then I go home and sleep, “he said. “I hope that this virus can soon disappear and that Hong Kong can become the busy city it once was. An exciting city. “