During the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic that brought Hong Kong to a virtual standstill in 2003, the surgical face-mask became the global emblem of a beleaguered city. It condensed and projected the fear, alienation, but also the resilience and ultimately the solidarity of a community under stress.
We look back now at the courage of healthcare workers who laboured at the frontline to treat the sick – a sacrifice commemorated in the Sars memorial garden in Hong Kong Park.
Sixteen years later, another traumatic emblem may be gaining traction: the gauze eye-patch. Images of shattered goggles, rubber bullets, the fabric “pillows” of emptied bean-bags, gas canisters, and bloodied faces now circulate across the international media. These are redefining Hong Kong as a different kind of hotspot in the global imaginary – the site of a different species of re-emergent violence. Like objects trouvés in a conceptual artwork, only this is for real.
In seizing upon this ocular motif, Hong Kong’s young protesters have intuitively found an iconography that encapsulates a conflict that is at once visceral and deeply symbolic. In the bloodied eye-patch there is no hint of the piratical. Instead, we read pain, loss, but also blindness’s correlative: enlightenment.
When chief executive Carrie Lam declared that “Hong Kong is seriously wounded” she was right. Some critics would claim she’s a culprit. In June, Jimmy Sham of the Civil Human Rights Front likened Lam’s assurances that the extradition bill was dead to a knife, telling reporters: “It’s almost reached our heart. Now the government said they won’t push it, but they also refuse to pull it out.”
The word “trauma” derives from the Greek for wound. Today, Hongkongers from all walks of life are traumatised, that much is clear. Not only from the 1,000 canisters of tear gas reported to have been used between June 9 and August 4, much of it in residential areas, but in spirit, too. A recent study from the University of Hong Kong has suggested that close to 1 in 10 Hongkongers may be suffering from depression, almost double the level in 2014 during the Occupy protests.
And now the wounding purportedly extends to the institutions that service the wounded. Hospitals have been drawn into the fray, with allegations that patient-protesters’ confidential data has been disclosed to the authorities, that police have made arrests in public hospitals, and that private institutions have turned away patients in need of treatment. As one of the doctors who helped organize the recent rally at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Yau Ma Tei was reported as saying, this is rapidly becoming a humanitarian crisis.
In Hong Kong, the field of operation has expanded dangerously over recent weeks to challenge medical neutrality. It was, after all, the alleged shooting in the eye by the police of a young woman reported to be a volunteer medic at Tsim Sha Tsui that catalyzed the so-called “eye for an eye” campaign.
One hundred and sixty years ago, as he surveyed the carnage at the battle of Solferino with thousands left dead and injured, the Swiss businessman and philanthropist Henri Dunant imagined the creation of “relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime.” This was the dream of a regulated space set apart from conflict, where the wounded could be freely tended. The International Committee of the Red Cross was born and with it the Geneva Convention and modern humanitarianism. From the outset, then, war has been braided to the humanitarian. Just as global health requires global disease, so the humanitarian hinges on the temporary and circumscribed cessation of continual conflict. The humanitarian is always and inevitably a state of exception.
And it is at exceptional moments like this that we need to celebrate the value of a public service that has been so hard-won. There aren’t many places in the world like Hong Kong that offer its residents such excellent medical treatment. The territory’s public health system (however strapped) and the dedicated people who work in it sum up Hong Kong’s uniqueness – as well as its contradiction as a place where rampant capitalism coexists with state-sponsored health.
On Thursday, the Hospital Authority issued a press release warning that mass gatherings in public hospitals would affect patient services. But witnessing doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers coming out in public hospitals to condemn the “excessive use of force” against anti-government protesters was extraordinarily poignant. It drove home the truth that medicine, however distant and technological it may have become, is always indubitably social. There is no medicine that isn’t social medicine; no medicine that isn’t ultimately humanitarian – that is, exceptional.
Many of the healthcare demonstrators wore masks. Some wore eye-patches. The juxtaposition of both emblems was a shocking measure of how much has changed since 2003. It was a reminder of how easily the humanitarian ethos can be lost and why it must be kept alive, whatever opposing views are held. So, yes, Hong Kong may be seriously wounded, but when the healers of the wounded speak, it is time to listen.
Robert Peckham is MB Lee professor of humanities and medicine and director of the Centre for the Humanities and Medicine at the University of Hong Kong