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.
Social distancing in 100 square feet: Hong Kong's cage homes are almost impossible to self-isolate in
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.
Lum, who is unemployed, said he pays 1,800 Hong Kong dollars ($232) for an apartment divided between 10 people.
Lum's situation is extreme, but not unusual. Nine in 10 people in Hong Kong live in an area smaller than 753 square feet -- or 70 square meters -- and yet pay some of the highest rents and property prices in the world. The average cost of a home was more than $1.2 million last year, according to real estate investment firm CBRE.
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.
"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."
How long can people like Lum be expected to stay at home?
Hong Kong has a reputation overseas as a wealthy global financial center, populated by rich bankers who live in wildly expensive apartments overseeing the city's iconic skyline.
While that lifestyle exists, it is far from the norm -- Hong Kong is one of the most economically unequal places in the world, where an estimated one in five people live in poverty. Skyrocketing real estate prices were one of the major issues that drew protesters to the streets during last year's months of political unrest.
The virus has only pronounced that inequality, as poor people are forced to retreat into their cage homes.
Cheung Lai Hung and Chan Yuk Kuen, two retired women in their late 50s, say that since the pandemic they've been spending an extra 10 hours a day in their 100-square-foot apartments. They pass the time by watching TV, listening to music or napping.
"We're afraid of the current situation," said Cheung.