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Hong Kong Gripped by Fear of SARS - 2003-04-02

Hong Kong is gripped by fear as the number of people affected by Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, continues to rise. People move around the territory wearing surgical face masks, and the slightest rumor sends residents into panic.

Bus drivers, bank tellers, school children, commuters - all over Hong Kong people are covered with surgical face masks, in an effort to avoid contracting Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

A rumor that Hong Kong would be closed off as an infected area triggered panic buying in the territory's supermarkets Tuesday. Shoppers snapped up canned goods, rice and other essentials. Bleach and antiseptic products were also in high demand.

Many drugstores are running out of face masks, which doctors say can block the spit and mucus droplets that are thought to be the main transmission mode for the disease. Some drugstores that still stock masks are selling them for 15 times more than the regular price.

One of Hong Kong's commuters says he is very afraid of catching the virus so he is using a mask. But he says that if other people are not wearing masks, it will not be useful.

Another woman says she is not afraid to go out without a mask because she only travels between work and home, which are very close to each other.

Some people who do not wear masks report they are stared at in crowded places such as subway stations.

Some enterprising manufacturers are selling masks with popular cartoon characters printed on them. Others are selling masks sporting counterfeit designer labels.

SARS victims suffer severe flu-like symptoms and often develop pneumonia. There are more than 700 cases in Hong Kong, and the disease has killed at least 16 people.

Local television stations have been running advertisements urging residents to maintain good personal hygiene. People are discouraged from shaking hands or kissing when they meet friends, to avoid spreading the disease.

Businessmen and tourists, a major contributor to the economy, are shunning Hong Kong, and hotels and restaurants are hurting. The World Health Organization has issued a travel warning asking travelers to postpone trips to Hong Kong and Guangdong area.

A restaurant owner says fewer people are coming to his restaurant. He adds that he does not know how he can pay the rent.

A Hong Kong newspaper seller says she has been working on the street for many years and almost anything can happen on the street. She says there is no use being afraid.

Hong Kong people traveling overseas may feel ostracized. Switzerland has banned Hong Kong traders from attending an international watch fair in the country. Thailand is requiring visitors from SARS-affected areas to wear masks and Malaysia has banned foreign workers from infected places.