Social distancing in 100 square feet: Hong Kong’s cage homes are almost impossible to self-isolate in

A handout photograph from the Society for Community Organization shows the inside of one of Hong Kong's "cage homes."

Hong Kong (CNN) Before the pandemic, Lum Chai used to go to the park and drink beers with friends to escape his tiny living quarters. Now the 45-year-old walks the city’s streets alone to kill time and keep away from his neighbors.

Vigilantly practicing social distancing at home isn’t an option for Lum. He lives in one of Hong Kong’s “cage homes,” subdivided apartments that often have space for only a bed and some clothes. His closest neighbor is just a few feet away, inside the same room.

Cage homes are usually smaller than 100 square feet, only 25 square feet larger than most of the city’s prison cells. Bathrooms are mostly communal and often there are no kitchens — just plug-in hot plates. Units are mostly divided by makeshift or removable walls.

A handout photograph from the Society for Community Organization shows the inside of one of Hong Kong’s “cage homes.”

Lum, who is unemployed, said he pays 1,800 Hong Kong dollars ($232) for an apartment divided between 10 people.

To make things worse, many public areas are closed due to the pandemic. Libraries are shuttered. Jungle gyms in parks are taped off. Restaurants have slashed capacity, and bars have been forced to close, unless they serve food. Public gatherings are limited to four people.

Despite having had the virus since January, Hong Kong has recorded fewer than 1,050 infections and 4 deaths, so few citizens disagree with the restrictions. But that doesn’t make them easy to live with.

Lum Chai, 45, is seen during Impact HK’s meal service on Tuesday, April 7.

“I’m so lonely,” Lum said. “There isn’t that same atmosphere on the streets like there was before. So few people sit in the parks. People used to watch the children play and the elderly play badminton.”

“It has indeed been a challenge to practice social distancing in a densely populated and vibrant city like Hong Kong,” the spokesperson said in a statement, adding that people weren’t banned from going out and that many had been visiting the city’s country parks.

For Lum, respite from the mental health effects of the pandemic can’t come soon enough. He no longer speaks with his family, which makes dealing with his loneliness and fear harder.

He often passes the time by sitting by himself and drinking beer. By his own admission, it’s no panacea.

“It’s very lonely. I have a couple of beers then go home and sleep,” he said. “I hope this virus can go away soon and that Hong Kong can go back to being the busy city that it was. An exciting city.”

By Joshua Berlinger | CNN
Journalists Karina Tsui, Alexandra Lin and Anna Kam contributed reporting