RapidBlog: Grand Rapidian and Hong Kong resident on life behind the viral curtain

Scott Hessels is a filmmaker, sculptor, and media artist whose works have been presented in leading international exhibitions featuring both Fine Arts and New Media.

Based in both Hong Kong and Western Michigan, he is the executive producer of the Extreme Environments Program which organizes art/science expeditions to environmentally significant sites. His data visualization research has partnered with leading science organizations like NASA and The Nature Conservancy and he is currently a professor at the School of Creative Media, the leading art and technology school in Asia. 

To learn more of his work, including his ArtPrize Award-Winning 2009 "Sustainable Cinema No. 1:The Image"  art piece
, please visit www.scotthessels.com

This essay is their own and does not necessarily reflect the views of Rapid Growth or its parent company, Issue Media Group.

RapidBlog: Behind the Viral Curtain

I would come around in moments—hitting the floor in a clinic near my home in Hong Kong, an emergency room near some bloodied teenagers, and finally in a grimy, crowded ward of 60 Chinese men slowly dying of pancreatic cancer, spaced 3 feet apart.  My hand had several punctures from IVs and every 2 hours my blood pressure was taken. I had collapsed from Acute Pancreatitis in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

I’m an artist and academic who has been living and working in Asia for 15 years, returning home to my family in Grand Rapids every summer. I’ll never understand Hong Kong fully, I claim nothing beyond the observation of my adopted culture yet stand alongside in the struggle for democracy here. Normally a ‘gweilo’ like me would stay within his plan, but the coronavirus rerouted me into the public health system here.

Each morning, a doctor would pass through for two hours and review each man in that ward for a couple of minutes, just looking at their stats. He rarely spoke to the patients, nor did the four nurses clustered in the center. I received X-rays, MRIs, a continuous IV, blood work, checkups, painkillers, antibiotics, food, a bed wrapped in plastic, and a pillow stuffed with paper. I checked out after five days, received a week of meds, and was billed $35.

Hong Kong public healthcare usually begins with Chinese medicine being the first option when one is ill. Herbal and organic ‘pharmacies’ are everywhere with locals resorting to Western medicine only for more serious health issues. Within walking distance in each neighborhood are simple 400 square foot storefront ‘clinics’ that house a GP doctor who is qualified, fluent, and stocked with basic resources. That’s it ... often not even a receptionist.  Two types of hospitals are available with the private ones among the most advanced in the world.  It’s a smart hierarchy of access, available at the neighborhood level after starting in the garden. 

The public hospitals are dreary clusters of 20-story high-rises (I was in Tower P) available to everyone and spaced throughout Hong’s Kong’s range of crushing urban density and sprawling rural wilderness. The equipment is worn and dated, the building design is 1980s Industrial Blunt: perfunctory, grim, dingy, grey from pollution, and streaked with mold. They are health factories that shuffle hundreds through their doors daily and host thousands of beds.

A week earlier, I was completely Health Care for All™.  I believed that a country of US’s wealth should provide all its citizens the best care available and that the investment would somehow pay for itself through a better country. It is a right, and it is the right thing to do.  And if during one of my visits back home, you corner me in the bar at Northfield Lanes, I still couldn’t disagree with that now. However, Hong Kong revealed another approach: remove the ‘care’ from Health Care and provide just the services. Everyone here can simply walk in the hospital door, have their wounds repaired, their pain alleviated, and receive the medicine they need to recover. The ‘care’ part, however, is not their job.  

No doctor held my hand, broke news to me gently, helped process my pain, explained a procedure; that would be a misuse of his time. The government exists to provide services and safety. While I often think of those 60 men dying slowly in that heartbreaking ward, where would they be and how great their suffering without the option? They never spoke to each other, they never complained.

Even more tragic is that due to the virus, their families aren’t allowed to visit.  Yet none asked for more—showing concern simply wasn’t the responsibility of a hospital. ‘Care’, the human connection that is also needed for healing, is the duty of a society: your family, your friends, and your neighbors. The burden and responsibility of providing well-being to every citizen is divided between the government and society.

A large part of why that works is cultural. The social contract in Asian society is one of my top reasons for making Hong Kong my second home. No one cuts ahead in line, and no one crosses the street until the light changes. There is nearly no support for the elderly as families are simply expected to take care of their earlier generations — quite a sacrifice when their living space here averages 400 square feet.  This quality has been foregrounded during our current coronavirus lockdown.

Face masks do nothing to stop receiving the virus but are helpful in preventing its transmission. A city of 7 million simply volunteered to wear them not as protection, but collective courtesy just in case one of us is sick and doesn’t yet know. The neighbors in my building made certain the elderly living among us had food and disinfectant during the shortages. People here care for each other by cultural default, an unquestioned heritage. They are not random acts of kindness, they are ingrained ones.

I’ve watched the American discourse unravel from a distance with both increased concern and growing cynicism. I’ve traveled and lived a great deal abroad, and no country I’ve encountered has the same stench of entitlement as ours. In our culture, personal freedom has somehow devolved into personal gain and privilege. Despite its strikingly reasonable cost to provide, The Hong Kong model couldn’t work in the US because a ‘hospital factory’ wouldn’t last a news cycle. One photo of a dirty corner and it would become a politicized talking point, any larger benefits lost in the electronic blather.

I’ve admired how Rapid Growth foregrounds those better angels among our society, yet their acts remain the beacons of exception when what we need is distributed light. I’ve now seen compassion as a cultural norm. Communities, friends, and families unite to alleviate the suffering of the marginalized and impoverished, adding the ‘care’ without being asked nor rewarded. Grand Rapids is now experiencing the coronavirus panic that we had a few weeks ago and I hope the outbreak does not reach the lockdown stages of my current situation here behind the viral curtain. If it does, however, look for ways to care for those around you as well. We can’t expect a better government if we do not become better people.   


For those seeking information as to how our region is handling the COVID 19 virus along with helpful tips to ensure we remain a safe and healthy community, please visit the Kent County Health Department's page dedicated to tracking the virus as well as important links to national resources also working to contain it.  

Photographic images from Hong Kong courtesy of Scott Hessels. 
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