A recent holiday in Thailand got me reflecting on just how much damage the Covid pandemic has done to all of us, even the survivors. And a series of studies and surveys are showing just how deep has been the hurt, and how --for many people -- the effects linger still.
The immediate purpose of the visit was to see my three grandchildren who live in Bangkok. Of course, we had kept in touch over the phone during the period international travel basically shut down. But seeing a distant face on a small screen is not the same as seeing that person in the flesh, with the opportunity of a spontaneous hug. Checking the dates of the last visit from passport chops, I realised with a sense of horror we had not been physically close for over three years. In the interim, two of the children had become teenagers and the third had reached double figures in age. I had completely missed out on some of their most formative years.
But it’s not only me, and it’s not only Thailand (I have other grandchildren in Beijing), we have all had three years ripped out of our lives. Time we will never get back.
The ultimate loss of course was suffered by the millions who actually died and we should mourn their passing. But the immediate family of the deceased and close friends also suffered a loss, their grief severe and made especially acute if the obstacles to international travel removed the opportunity for a last goodbye. Some patients are also reporting a long-term sense of fatigue and loss of morale. The phenomenon of what has been called “long Covid” will no doubt be studied in the months and years ahead.
The adverse long-term effects on the education of our young people have been emerging. Children have been arriving for kindergarten class unable to socialise or form words properly. Older students have had their education seriously disrupted by repeated suspension of classes, and lessons via zoom are simply no substitute for in-person teaching. Thankfully the worst days are behind us and things are now returning to normal. But it will take time for the negative effects to fade.
So where are we now? Looking around the most striking thing immediately visible is surely the continued preponderance of mask wearing. A degree of caution in early March was perhaps understandable, but more than four months after the mandate was lifted? From personal observation I would estimate around half of the passengers on public transport continue to mask up. A case can possibly be made for a more conservative approach on a crowded train, but what are we to make of the private car driver alone in his vehicle, or the solo pedestrian on an otherwise empty footpath? I even see people doing vigorous exercises in the gym with their faces covered, directly contrary to WHO advice because of the strain it puts on hearts and lungs.
Here in mid-Levels we are surrounded by secondary schools and every day, in the middle of summer with temperatures well over 30 and humidity through the roof hundreds of children can be seen gasping for air as they struggle to get to class. A few have started to go mask-free but the great majority still wear them. Since this is the generation least at risk, the question has to be asked why.
A study conducted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church may give part of the answer. More than 80 per cent of the pupils surveyed continue to wear masks and the biggest reason quoted was health concerns. Parental influence was another prominent factor. But the second most common reason given is surely cause for concern: lack of confidence in their personal appearance. Many of our youngsters are continuing to cover up because of social anxiety. When only eyes can be seen, everyone is pretty much equal. But when the masks come off, people can and will be compared to their peers in terms of physical beauty. Apparently, young girls are particularly prone to pressure in this aspect.
A separate study, conducted by the Institute of Higher Education and Chinese University found that more than half of primary and secondary students have moderate to severe depression or anxiety issues. The study was interested in a possible link between mental health and internet gaming disorder, which can lead to binge playing of electronic games. The overlap between the two sets of findings is striking.
A completely different survey, this time by a travel booking service platform, also had interesting results. Adults were asked about their travel plans for the next 12 months and an incredible 96 per cent said they were planning to be on the move somewhere. They are ready to spend more. Nearly 70 per cent were intending to travel more than once, and trip length was growing too. Moreover, the lead time for planning the trips is getting shorter: when Hongkongers feel like traveling, they want to go right now.
Putting all these pieces of the jigsaw together, we start to get a picture of the effects of the pandemic on Hongkongers’ mindset. They are worried. They have had a fresh reminder of the impermanence of life, have just lost three years of it, there’s no more time to lose.
Each of us will take different lessons from the Covid experience. I will look with more sympathy on those who continue to show signs of anxiety or depression. And I plan to spend a lot more time with my family -- to hell with the expense.