By Khadija Azhar

At the tail-end of what has been a particularly long winter in Hong Kong, there is an uncomfortable silence hanging over the city. Yesterday, stepping out into the heart of Central, I almost felt accosted by the pervasive stillness, disturbed only by the spattering of raindrops on the pavement. Threads of rain wove the city into a bleak tapestry: no people, no cars, and no drunken renditions of ABBA songs spilling onto the streets.

The pandemic has never felt as pressing here until now. The recent wave has left a ghost town in its wake as people endure long spells of isolation under social distancing rules. This isolation – coupled with the air of stagnancy and loss surrounding the past two years – has been debilitating[1] for mental wellbeing, not only in Hong Kong but across the world. It turns out languishing at home staring at virtual co-workers is not how some people pictured the ‘roaring twenties.’

Apart from obvious health anxiety, there has been an uptick in reported symptoms of depression, burnout and dissociation. A friend of mine describes being stuck in a “pandemic Groundhog Day” where the monotony of socially distant living warps his conception of time, to a point where every day looks the same to him. Even more troubling, millions are grappling with the trauma of bereavement, long-term health consequences, and loss of livelihood, without access to relevant support networks. Compared to pre-pandemic numbers, more people have reported sleep disturbances, substance abuse, and a worsening of pre-existing conditions as a result of stress[2]. While such feelings might not necessarily prefigure mental illness, they certainly evidence a decline in mental health.

Not surprisingly, the toll of the pandemic has disproportionately been borne by social groups that were particularly vulnerable even before 2020, including people in financial distress as well as those with pre-existing physical and mental conditions. Moreover, frontline workers such as doctors, nurses, and paramedics have found themselves at the helm of this fight, as healthcare systems crumble around them. The psychological distress[3] of working in such high-risk environments has translated into increased risk of suicide among healthcare workers[4]. In addition, ethnic minorities have experienced heightened racial discrimination[5] as health outcomes replicate existing structural inequalities. If anything, such trends have only made the flaws in our social institutions undeniable and mapped out areas that need additional attention from policymakers. 

However, that is not to say everyone is running on fumes; the experience of the pandemic has varied greatly across individuals. In Hong Kong, with the fifth wave worsening, there are pockets of life in windows across the skyline, as people try to make the most of this ordeal. You might be one of the lucky ones: maybe you picked up a hobby, learnt a new language, or are thrilled at the freedom to attend meetings pants-less. Maybe you are revelling in the opportunity to work from home and enjoying avoiding dyadic social events guilt-free.

Regardless, COVID-19 has prompted a renewed focus on mental health awareness to promote access to much-needed resources. Since the beginning, there have been scores of articles pointing to the “mental health pandemic”[6] that has accompanied the virus. People seem more aware of the need to adopt healthy coping mechanisms, as self-care and community care become more ubiquitous.

Reckoning with an event of this magnitude has made one fact undeniable: human beings are extremely resilient. The development and deployment of vaccines, the persistence of frontline workers, and community mobilisation to support the disenfranchised are all testament to our ability to adapt. Even in the face of prolonged trauma that has bulldozed mental and physical wellbeing across the world, levels of depression and anxiety have gradually normalised to pre-pandemic levels. As Hong Kong faces its worst phase of the coronavirus outbreak yet, it is important not to let pandemic fatigue colour one’s expectations of what is to come. There is always comfort to be found in stories of hope and solidarity, and the knowledge that though we are isolated, we are not alone.

Moreover, as we cultivate optimism, we should also strive to exercise compassion for the most disadvantaged in our society. This entails grappling with the intricacies of privilege and diverting resources to communities that are particularly hard hit. Going forward, these discrepancies need to be addressed in post-pandemic policy to ensure that in times of crisis, support is extended to everyone in an equitable manner.

[1] Zhao, Sheng Zhi, et al. “Mental Health Crisis under COVID-19 Pandemic in Hong Kong, China.” International Journal of Infectious Diseases, vol. 100, 2020, pp. 431–433.

[2] Panchal, Nirmita, et al. “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use.” Kaiser Family Foundation, 10 Feb. 2021, Accessed 25 Feb 2022.

[3] Van der Goot, Wieke E, et al. “Psychological Distress among Frontline Workers during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Mixed-Methods Study.” PloS One, vol. 16, no. 8, 2021, p. e0255510.

[4] Sana Awan, et al. “Suicide in Healthcare Workers: Determinants, Challenges, and the Impact of COVID-19.” Frontiers in Psychiatry, vol. 12, 2022, pp. Frontiers in psychiatry, 2022–02-01, Vol.12.

[5] Sun, Fiona. “Coronavirus: Hong Kong Covid-19 blame game in full swing again, with ethnic minority groups bearing brunt.” South China Morning Post, 1 Feb. 2022,

[6] Clifton, Jim. “The Next Global Pandemic: Mental Health.” Gallup, 3 Dec. 2021,

Published on: March 1, 2022 < Back >