‘No more hugging, no more kissing.’ At home in Hong Kong with 2 front-line doctors

  • >> Tiffany May, The New York Times
    Published: 2020-02-21 14:24:01 BdST

Eunice Chan, a physician in Hong Kong, removes her face mask only to shower, eat and drink.

At dinner time, when her three daughters, ages 7, 9 and 12, gather around the dining table, she takes her meal in another room.

“There’s no more hugging, no more kissing,” she said. “This is especially difficult for my youngest daughter.”

Her self-imposed isolation is not unwarranted. In Hong Kong, there have been two deaths and 65 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. And the semiautonomous Chinese city shares a porous border with the mainland, where 104 people on average have died of the disease every day since Feb. 1.

The whole city is on edge. Medical experts have implored residents to wash their hands regularly and to wear surgical masks in public, resulting in a run on supplies and long lines outside pharmacies.

But the risks, and anxieties, in the Chan household are particularly high. Both Eunice Chan, 44, and her husband, Dr Pierre Chan, 43, have taken extraordinary measures to treat their patients and protect their family.

Pierre Chan, a gastroenterologist at a public hospital and a member of Hong Kong’s legislature, this month examined five patients infected with the coronavirus.

Though he was wearing full protective gear and his hospital did not require him to go into quarantine, he slept on the floor of his office for 14 days to avoid the possibility of infecting his daughters and his in-laws.

Drs Eunice and Pierre Chan wear masks at home in Hong Kong, China on Feb 18, 2020. The New York Times

Drs Eunice and Pierre Chan wear masks at home in Hong Kong, China on Feb 18, 2020. The New York Times

“I don’t dare go home,” he said. “I don’t even dare to go into hotels. You never know: I could be asymptomatic. Maybe a tiny bit of the virus got onto my clothes.

“You don’t want to affect your family under any circumstances,” he added.

Both were young physicians during the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in the early 2000s. That crisis eventually sickened 386 medical workers in the city, killing four doctors, a nurse and three assistants.

But they said they worried more about the current outbreak than they did about SARS.

“Back then, there was no situation like this,” Eunice Chan said. “The government has created an air of mistrust.”

That mistrust has resulted in thousands of medical workers striking to pressure the government to close the border and prevent mainland Chinese from entering the city; protesters setting fire to fever clinics and quarantine centres; and a shortage of toilet paper after a rumour spread through the city that supplies would be restricted.

SARS, they said, instilled in them an understanding of how easily epidemic infections can spread and how quickly life in the city can be upended by an outbreak. It also gave them an appreciation of how simple measures can be lifesaving.

“We witnessed the aftermath of SARS. We have seen people die,” Pierre Chan said. “Now, I know to be afraid.”

When he returned home Sunday from his self-imposed quarantine, his daughters presented him with a drawing of him, bedecked with pink hearts and soccer balls.

“I was so happy to be back home,” he said.

But he kept his mask on, and he stopped himself from hugging them.

© 2020 New York Times News Service