A man sleeps with a towel on his face at Hong Kong International Airport on July 6. Hongkongers’ interest in travel has surged in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, with travellers planning on leaving the city more often for longer trips and spending more while doing so. Photo: AFP
Mike Rowse
Mike Rowse

Social anxiety and wanderlust are among Covid-19 pandemic’s lingering impact on Hong Kong

  • Even though Hong Kong is slowly returning to normal after the pandemic, its effects still weigh on our daily lives
  • Many students still wear masks out of health concerns or social anxiety, and local travellers are eager to get out of the city and see the world

A recent holiday in Thailand got me reflecting on just how much damage the Covid-19 pandemic has done to all of us. A series of studies and surveys are showing just how deep the hurt has been, and how the effects continue to linger for many people.

The immediate purpose of the visit was to see my three grandchildren who live in Bangkok. Of course, we 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 more than three years. In the interim, two of the children had become teenagers and the third had reached double figures in age. I had missed out on some of their most formative years.

But it’s not only me, and it’s not only Thailand. We have all had three years ripped out of our lives. That is time we will never get back.

The ultimate loss 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 memory. The phenomenon of what has been called “ long Covid” will no doubt be studied in the months and years ahead.


First travellers arrive and depart from Beijing as China reopens international borders

First travellers arrive and depart from Beijing as China reopens international borders
The adverse long-term effects on the education of our young people have been emerging. Children have been arriving for class unable to socialise. Older students have had their education seriously disrupted by repeated suspension of classes, and lessons via Zoom are no substitute for in-person teaching. 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 people wearing masks. 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 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 World Health Organization advice.

Here in the Mid-Levels, we are surrounded by secondary schools and every day, in the middle of summer with temperatures well above 30 degrees Celsius 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 most still wear them. We must ask why.

Students in face masks look at their phone at Olympian City at Tai Kok Tsui on May 30. Photo: Sam Tsang
A study conducted by the Evangelical Lutheran Church Social Service might 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 was cause for concern: lack of confidence in their personal appearance.
Many of our youngsters are continuing to mask 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 attractiveness.

A separate study, conducted by the Institute of Higher Education and Chinese University, found that more than half of primary and secondary students surveyed had moderate to severe depression or stress issues. The study was looking for a possible link between mental health and playing video games online.


Chinese tourists return in droves to Bali, Thai beaches for first time in 3 years

Chinese tourists return in droves to Bali, Thai beaches for first time in 3 years
A different survey, this time by online travel agency Klook, also had interesting results. Adults were asked about their travel plans for the next 12 months and 96 per cent said they were planning to be on the move somewhere. They are also ready to spend more, and trip length was growing, too. Moreover, the lead time for planning the trips is getting shorter: when Hongkongers feel like travelling, they want to go right now.

Putting all these pieces of the puzzle 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 and feel there’s no time to lose.

Each of us will take different lessons from the pandemic 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.

Mike Rowse is the CEO of Treloar Enterprises