So why would we know, how come we can predict that we need to wear masks? It was before the first confirmed case in Hong Kong. So there was this collective memory of this type of illness, and the knee-jerk reaction of us needing to do this.
– LAURA COZIJNSEN
Interview and Illustration by Tara Tang
To start off the COVID-19 19 interview series, I invited Laura Cozijnsen for a discussion at her office in Tsim Sha Tsui on a Thursday morning. Laura is the founder of Lighthouse Consultancy, a communications consultancy delivering diverse public relation campaigns and events with high profile clients such as Tai Kwun, HKUST and HKIA. Alongside Laura’s entrepreneurial success at Lighthouse, she is an award-winning MC and public speaker hosting events such as the 2010 Expo in Shanghai. With Laura’s longstanding involvement and commitment for Hong Kong’s communications industry, this interview hopefully reveals a glimpse into the potential changes and innovations Lighthouse Consultancy and the larger creative industries will have to go through in order to adapt with COVID-19. And as much as it is important to consider the new corporate strategies set in motion, I also wanted to know how Laura was personally coping with the pandemic whether it be with how she greets her dog when she comes back from work or on the political nature of the face mask. Everyone in Hong Kong has their own memories of SARS and now COVID-19, and this is Laura Cozijnsen’s:
T: Reflecting on the past, what was your understanding and experience of SARS in 2003?
L: 2003, I was working for a media company starting in Hong Kong. I remember vividly that it was very scary. The times were scary. Scary in a sense, there is almost like this fog of fear around hong kong. I think it was scarier then now. I remember vividly because my role back then was a regional role. I had to travel to Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia. We had a few trips planned before SARS. There was this Singaporean company who called us and said “please don’t come to Singapore, you are from the SARS zone”. And I felt so bad, we always felt so welcomed to have meetings and then we could dine out. And then all of a sudden all we got was “you’re from the SARS zone”. It was also a time when I felt…we felt collectively sad. And the loss of medical professionals – the doctors, the nurses and the caregivers all live in our memories. And of course Amoy Gardens and the area around it, no one wanted to be near the buildings. That was how scary it was.
T: I wrote an essay before this all happened – an essay focusing on illness narratives. I wrote about how prevention was also part of an illness really, because it was a social reaction. So I wrote about the prevention methods in the United Kingdom versus Hong Kong. It reminded me that one time, I told my mom that I was going to a birthday party buffet in the Metropole Hotel in Mong Kok. I didn’t know at the time, because they changed their names and everything. So my mom was like “What’s wrong with you?”.
L: I think it was different from now. SARS was more a Hong Kong/China thing. At the beginning of coronavirus, it felt very much the same. There was China and there was Hong Kong. No one knew that it would blow up in the rest of the world. And now it felt like it was the whole world going through this. And from a financial perspective, it’s worse now. Because SARS was just here, and now the rest of the world. I think, is this nature’s way of telling us like “wake up”. No one can escape.
I had a friend in the UK that caught coronavirus. She is from Hong Kong, she works in London. Her mom visited her in January and her mom came back early March, after staying with her for two months. And the tests at the airports, she was confirmed as a case. And then my friend started feeling coughs and heavy breathing, and it was only then that she realised that she might have coronavirus. She was not tested, because they said we do not have enough test. So the numbers…what does a number mean?
T: You touched on it briefly, but how has it changed in 2020? And especially in the earlier months, when it felt so much more like an “asian problem”. What was your perspective in Hong Kong?
L: I thought it would be like SARS. Okay, as long as we continue doing the precautions we will be okay. But then there was also this scare of the lack of masks. Everybody was trying to get a mask. You know the internet meme of “two boxes please”? When someone says, I have a source and then you respond with “two boxes please”. That has become a joke amongst friends but that was the most scary. Because we had no idea we would need so many masks. And it was Chinese New Year. The Wuhan lockdown was 25th of January. And that really sent a message. I should send you my Facebook Live, I did a facebook live on the survey results. It was amazing, the day Hong Kong people started wearing masks was before the Wuhan lockdown. So why would we know, how come we can predict that we need to wear masks? It was before the first confirmed case in Hong Kong. So there was this collective memory of this type of illness, and the knee-jerk reaction of us needing to do this.
This was so funny, one day like many others I was trying to get a box of mask for myself and my mother who does not live with me. I went all over the neighbourhood trying to get masks. We ended up at a grocery store, and the saleslady said “We ran out of masks, why don’t you get some gloves?”. I think the irrationality got the better of me, I bought two boxes of gloves. So it’s still sitting in my kitchen, unused. That was the moment where I realised “Laura you are being irrational you wanted masks but you got disposable gloves!”. I think it was also realising that the death rate in Hong Kong was much less than SARS in Hong Kong was reassuring. But yes, that was the early days.
T: Especially the HKU Prevention of Diseases department, they continued to speak out even after Carrie Lam was asking citizens to not wear a mask. And the team at HKU, they were like “please wear a mask!”.
L: There are so many mixed messages! I think a lot of them come out and say “don’t wear a mask because there is a shortage”. If you don’t have enough stock, you should be clear about it. We have stock for how many days, what’s the best alternatives. You cannot say you do not have to wear one, it is irresponsible. When you look at the statistics, how the growth was being contained in certain cities you realise mask wearing helps. When you look at the President of the United States, he does not even wear a mask, he does not wear a mask in the hospital.
Which brings to the question – how do we select our leaders, how are our leaders being selected and why are they our leaders?
When I was writing my thesis, inevitably people would start talking about the Anti-Mask Law, last year in Hong Kong for the protests. But I think as researchers in that role, we report what is being brought up. And its totally okay, with people there has to be politics.
I think we should provide all medical and sanitation staffs a bonus and a longer holiday after this. Because they work their asses off. I’ve got close friends working in public hospitals that were so stressed, understandably stressed. You also see the beauty of someone going into the Dirty Team with SARS experience, bringing in new nurses and doctors who do not have SARS experience. Hopefully that would educate them and help them understand what it is like. There is a good thing going on as well, those who have experienced it say, “I need to do this because I want the second and third generation of caretakers to know what it’s like.”.
T: Going on more of a business perspective, since industries have been pushed into a digital realm during COVID-19, how has that changed working in event management?
L: I think there are a few layers, when you see something that is such a change that is so abrupt. I would think the first thing to do is internal stabilising within the company. In early Feb, we talked about how COVID-19 would affect us as an industry and what we have to brace ourselves for. Every month we have a “situation room meeting”. We basically talk about how business is, what it is going to be like. So internal is phase one. The second is facing external but not in terms of switching gears but understanding what our clients are facing. Because we are all human. They might be afraid of losing their job or bottom line. So really understanding their concerns is what is important. And the thought then would be to switch gears or to think about new things. It would hopefully in the next year that hybrid events could be an option. Once we have this, we can go back and have internal education and the talk yesterday for clients we can reassure them and tell them that we have done this before.
Everything begins with the team, then to understand what the market and client wants and then do it instead of jumping right in. Because without an internal support or understanding you can never do it well. Of course during this time period, all companies are under a lot of stress. It is a time to tell people’s virtues and real characters.
T: Do you think it will change the future of physical events, do you think people will be less willing to participate since you do specific location based events?
L: I think there is going to be a push and pull. There will be a switch in terms of the proportions for a while. And if digital picks up and serves the purpose then we will see events in a different light. Digital events will become less of a ‘nice to have’ and more of a main thing. The benefits have not been capitalised before. I do think that physical events are important because we are human beings, we crave social interactions and seeing each other. But it will be very different.
T: Thinking about your colleagues at work, since they are younger do you think their understanding of SARS is vastly different to yours?
L: I don’t think a lot of them remember, I think at least you have to be 30 years old to have good memory of SARS because it was 17 years ago. To pick up a new thing it does not necessarily have to be for young people, you might see older generations willing to pick up new things. It does not mean that young people will be more accepting to change. So I think the future of education is about growing a generation of agility, flexibility and change. Instead of having to tell students to take ten subjects and pass all of them.
T: How have you and your personal circle (family and friends) been coping with COVID-19?
L: It’s interesting, I get to see more friends now than before. We will call each other more. Before, I had a busier schedule. I do not think that without COVID-19, I would have met so many friends if that can be considered a plus. Family – my mother has been through SARS, she is okay. She has more supplies than she needs, but her only thing is that she is a big church person. So I was teaching her how to use Facebook to watch mass.
T: My grandma does that too! She tells me, “Yes we can go to mass together online!”.
L: I think that has changed, my mom is 78 and she can still learn which is pretty amazing. I also think the world has slowed down. And for us to realise when there is less work, what is important. It is the friends and family that we have. I have friends who paid horrendous amounts of money just to get their kids to get back on the soonest flight. I asked them, “Can you wait for a week? It would be maybe 1/10th of the price.”. And they responded with, “No it must be today.”.
T: In terms of understanding the political nature of the mask, what is your opinion on Hong Kong’s culture of donning masks?
L: I think mask wearing in Hong Kong is a constructed social defence, because that is something we can do. It is almost like psychologically I can do something about it. SARS has redefined for us what a mask is. Because it used to be if you were sick or for a medical staff. But now after SARS, if it is the flu season, you see a lot more people wearing masks. Especially now, according to my research, it is 96% of Hong Kong people wear a mask. Maybe every now and then before the pandemic, someone wearing a mask would be not judged that much. So in fact, the social judgement can change. And not to mention last year, the anti-mask law, and now people see differently. It is something that we feel i can control – both on a hygiene level and on a choice level. So I will do it.
T: How do you feel about the anti-mask law? How did others go about it? Because when I first heard of that law I wondered what people who were sick would go about their day. Even if you were stopped by authorities how can you really prove that you are sick?
L: Personally I was quite resistant to the anti-mask law because I think it is a personal choice. Of course there is a discussion with those who would be held responsible in the eyes of the law with those participating in unauthorised rallies but I still think this is a human right. I think we should want to choose whether we want to wear a mask or not. Of course if a police officer needs to check my HKID for whatever reason, they can request me to temporarily take off my mask. But you cannot say you cannot wear a mask. It’s like if its for religious purposes, oh you cannot wear a veil. It just does not make sense. Or by telling people that you cannot wear a mask it makes people want to wear a mask, it’s a kind of reverse psychology.
T: I would like to talk about the situation in Mainland China. There are videos on the Internet of people coughing on lift buttons. Now, I do not know if these videos are one hundred percent real or staged. But even the very act of filming it or recording it from a security camera, what does that mean for the health and safety for people living their day to day lives?
L: I feel the most sorry for the people in Wuhan. I think they would require a lot of support after this because it is like where the nuclear bomb hit, right? You didn’t know it was happening, it happened, you didn’t know how to react, you didn’t know who to trust, and you’re just trying to fight for your life. And it is so sad to see videos of people living there and reporters trying to cover footage, it’s such a quiet city. It is a city that needs a lot of love. And politics is one thing but we always need to remember we are all people, whatever political affiliations we have we are human beings. And imagine that feeling in Wuhan, is like the feeling of being in SARS in Hong Kong. Like, “Fuck, what’s going on? What’s going to happen next?”. I still remember during SARS when I got home, I’d take off all my clothes and then run straight to the bathroom and take a shower before I’d play with my dog. And my dog would be looking at me like. Even now, it’s not as serious. I would go home, wash my hands and then take off my mask and change into home clothes and then I’ll play with my dog. But she still looks at me confused. And I’m sure people with kids as well. Just imagine doctors and nurses with kids, they (kids) don’t understand. If this is happening to us, we aren’t even in the epicentre. Imagine those in the epicentre.
T: I remember when they did the lockdown in Wuhan, initially they said it was two weeks. But when I saw the lorries barricading the city. I thought to myself, “This is not for two weeks. This is something very serious.”
L: I think for us in communication there is a lot to learn. How should we communicate? What should we communicate? And I think the Taiwan government this time has done a good job. There is so much to learn from them, how they communicated, what to say and what not to say. It is not a parental way of ruling, it is more like how can we work together. I think it is a lot to learn in terms of communications and media.