As Hong Kong moves past coronavirus, its unsung hygiene army soldiers on

As anti-government unrest resumes here, many of these workers also bear the brunt of clearing debris, spent tear gas canisters and broken glass left behind by protesters and police. On Sunday, a cleaner collapsed after a group of people rushed into a bathroom where she was working; she was hospitalized in critical condition. In November, an elderly cleaner was struck in the head by a brick and died during street clashes. Two boys aged 16 and 17 have been charged with his murder.

In cities such as Hong Kong, these workers earn minimum wage and are often treated as part of an underclass. While their efforts have allowed residents to ease back to normal life after the pandemic, they have largely relied on social workers and charity groups for protective gear such as masks, sanitizer and eyewear, underscoring the inequality and disproportionate burdens that have defined this public health crisis.

“Back in February, when things were at the worst here, we had nothing, no protective gear or no masks,” said Lee Chun Kwok, 70, a street cleaner who has become a daily fixture in his assigned area in Mong Kok, a dense Hong Kong neighborhood. “But luckily I have a strong body, so I have been safe.”

Daily hardship

Lee used to work as a security guard for a bus company. But when he reached the mandatory retirement age, he had barely enough saved. He turned to a company contracted by Hong Kong’s government to clean public spaces and began working 10-hour shifts sweeping, collecting trash and clearing garbage cans.

Like most street cleaners, Lee was hired on a contract without health insurance or other benefits. He earns about $1,500 a month with overtime but gets help from a Catholic charity, the Pastoral Center for Workers.

Ho Tin Lok, a program officer at the group, said private companies win government tenders by offering the lowest rates. Street cleaners are typically paid the legal minimum, about $4.50 an hour.

“It is almost impossible for them to survive in Hong Kong on such low pay,” Ho said. Even before the outbreak, he said, the charity had been helping cleaners apply for subsidies and rental relief.

Developing covid-19 does not count as a work-related injury, he added, meaning any cleaner requiring treatment for the virus must pay for it.

Lee lives apart from his family — which is on the other side of Hong Kong, in a subdivided apartment of less than 100 square feet — so that he can be closer to work for his 6:30 a.m. starts. He does not have a washing machine, so on his own dime he visits a laundromat to clean and disinfect everything he wears, including his uniform. Lee said his wife works in a restaurant where business suffered as patrons dried up during the outbreak.

“There is no other choice for me, really,” Lee said. “I have to make a living.”

When reports of a new respiratory virus reached Hong Kong, which was hit hard in the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, Lee and other cleaners badgered their employers for protective gear such as surgical masks, hand sanitizer, gloves and eye protection, aware that their exposure to a variety of surfaces puts them at greater risk.

“Unlike the others, there is no work from home for us,” Lee said. For weeks, he said, street cleaners reused masks for nine-hour shifts, until nongovernment organizations stepped in to provide more.

Later in February, authorities set aside masks produced by inmates at correctional facilities for some 21,700 government-contracted cleaners.

But cleaners interviewed by The Washington Post said that one mask a day is insufficient — the coverings turn moist and unhygienic after a few hours. Rai, a 54-year-old street cleaner from Nepal who spoke on the condition of using only her first name, for fear of retribution from her employer, said she packs her own masks when she goes out to her assigned area in Tsim Sha Tsui, a shopping district, and swaps them out on her breaks. She had to ask her family in Nepal to send additional supplies.

Of the $1,496 she makes a month, she sends most of it back home to her four children and spends the rest on rent.

Front-line decisions

In March, as hundreds of Hong Kong residents returned from coronavirus hot spots around the world and served mandatory quarantine orders, the risk of infection shifted from the streets to the hotels that housed these suspected carriers.

Chan Lok, a 38-year-old housekeeping supervisor at a hotel in Mong Kok, said his team went on high alert. Without a standardized policy across hotels, Chan consulted other cleaning supervisors to implement new hygiene protocols.

Their hotel — which Chan declined to name, because he was not authorized to speak on its behalf — was not a designated quarantine facility. But management decided that if there were a confirmed case on the premises, no one would enter the room in question for 48 hours, after which workers would disinfect it — mattress, sheets and all — and then clean it again. Protective gear was sourced from around the world for the cleaning staff, and a new disinfecting regimen was implemented for all rooms.

“They just asked us to figure out a plan,” Chan said of his managers. “They never discussed a situation where a staff member may have to self-quarantine if they come in contact with a confirmed case, or what would happen to their salary or livelihoods.”

Chan said he is not hard-up, but most of his front-line cleaning staffers are new migrants who support families in China. Hotels are making employees take unpaid leave each month because they cannot afford to pay them with the dramatic drop in revenue.

A tense moment came last month when Chan noticed a guest wearing one of the government-issued electronic monitoring bands given to returning travelers under mandatory quarantine. Chan and the hotel manager kicked him out.

No respite for some

At Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Leung finds herself slipping into the role of a therapist, trying to cheer up her patients and distract them with small talk. But at times, Leung has struggled, too.

At the height of the outbreak, when she was tending to several coronavirus patients, hospital management put her up in a hotel to protect her family from the risk of infection. She has not gone home since mid-March.

“I miss my family very much, especially my 2-year-old grandson,” she said. “We only get to talk via video chat at night.”

Leung says she is grateful for the $2,300 she makes a month and feels a great sense of pride and mission in her work. The hospital also provides her with an allowance, she said.

With Hong Kong recording no new local cases for several weeks, everyday life is restarting for many. Some students have returned to school, fitness centers have dusted off their machines, and movie theaters have resumed screenings. Karaoke bars will reopen this week, and air passengers will be able to transit through the city from Monday. Just 31 coronavirus patients remain in hospitals.

For Leung, work goes on. The N95 masks stifle her breathing, fitted so tightly they leave marks on her face. Her family has to wait awhile still before they can see her.

“But that’s just my work, and my responsibility,” she said. “I just want the patients to be well as soon as possible and for the virus to leave our society.”

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