Earthquake Engineering

The proof that we can pull together in a crisis

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 25 March, 2011, 12:00am

I have been getting e-mails from friends in Japan. Here is a typical description of Tokyo in late evening on the day of the earthquake.

'The traffic was terrible because there were no traffic lights. But everybody was taking their turn, not pushing through the intersections. Office buildings stayed open and people stood outside, inviting the hundreds of thousands walking home to come in to rest, to use the toilet or to have some tea or coffee as it was so cold.'

I received that just one week ago, when the Japanese people's calmness and discipline had become news worldwide. The international media, always on the lookout for the worst, had failed to find looting or profiteering.

That was the same day we saw the panic-buying of salt in Hong Kong. Since some salt contains iodine, some people thought it would help protect against radioactivity from the damaged power station in Japan. Others thought the bodies of people who died in the tsunami would contaminate future salt supplies. (After the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, I remember people refusing to eat seafood because bodies of the dead would have been in the same water the fish came from.)

The salt panic was typical Hong Kong herd behaviour. The logic is that, if so many people are rushing to do something, there must be a good reason and there is no point in wasting time learning what that reason is. There is a sort of pragmatism at work here; but what if the herd's actions lack reason? That brings us to irrationality. The idea that salt was needed because of radiation made no sense at all. Nor, of course, did the fear of bodies in the water. You could say this made Hong Kong people look foolish. But we are hardly alone.

Throughout Asia, people are getting nervous about Japanese seafood and vegetables, following reports of increased radiation levels in some produce and subsequent export bans. Is this irrational? Scientists say the radiation levels are in fact safe, but people can be forgiven for being cautious. We have had plenty of food scares in the past.

How would Hong Kong people behave in a real crisis? A lot of people have recently been saying that we could not cope. We are not very self-reliant, expecting government help when our children are delayed overseas by snow. We are impatient, unlike the Tokyo residents who took the shutdown of ATMs in their stride. We listen to rumours, stocking up on Tamiflu for severe acute respiratory syndrome (or salt to ward off radiation) even though there is no good reason. (Having said that, even the Japanese have been listening to rumours in the past week or two.) For most of us in Hong Kong, the nearest comparison to the earthquake crisis was the 2003 Sars outbreak.

It was a frightening time, with a mystery disease creating a rising daily death toll and leaving our shops, streets and airport deserted. It was not an earthquake or a tsunami, but at one stage we had no guarantee that it would not become a much bigger disaster.

And here is the key point: there was no serious panic and certainly no breakdown in law and order. The arguments and criticism that characterise the community most of the time were largely put to one side. Households, schools and the workforce adopted new routines and generally pulled together. I believe that would happen again if a genuine crisis came our way.

If you doubt Hong Kong's ability to face tragedy, remember the bravery of the hospital workers - ordinary people from various backgrounds who volunteered to go into quarantined medical facilities without knowing what would happen to them. Their behaviour, like that of the emergency repair crews in the Japanese nuclear power plant, surely showed a community that can handle the worst.

Bernard Chan is a former member of the executive and legislative councils