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Hong Kongers Scramble for Scarce Necessities Amid Coronavirus Outbreak

A group of public health workers are on strike to demand the Hong Kong government fully close its borders with China and provide adequate protection for them. (Photo by David Hui)

There is increasing anxiety in Hong Kong over the coronavirus outbreak, as citizens began camping outside shops overnight this week in the hope of buying surgical masks while others snapped up household necessities from rice to toilet rolls.

Shelves for toilet paper, tissues, kitchen towels, cleaning wipes and other paper products in supermarkets across Hong Kong were mostly empty Thursday morning after people bought them all the night before, largely thanks to an online rumor that China would stop manufacturing toilet paper for the next two weeks.

“These black-clad young people who say they are against China — look at this now! If China stops exporting stuff here, where would we get our necessities from?” yelled an elderly woman in front of rows of empty shelves where paper products are usually placed in a supermarket. She was referring to demonstrators who have been staging anti-government protests over the past few months in Hong Kong’s ongoing political crisis.

There is also panic buying on rice — a staple food for Hong Kongers — packet noodles and vitamins, leaving the shelves eerily empty, although there was no shortage of meat and vegetables in shops.

A woman wearing face mask walks past empty shelves at a supermarket in Hong Kong, Feb. 6, 2020.
A woman wearing face mask walks past empty shelves at a supermarket in Hong Kong, Feb. 6, 2020.

“Looks like a war is coming!” joked a supermarket worker in a middle-class neighborhood, where there was a long line at the cashier. Many people leaving the supermarkets were carrying multipacks of toilet rolls, tissues and kitchen rolls.

There has been a severe shortage of surgical masks and sanitizing agents such as alcohol hand rubs and wipes, with many pharmacies posting notes on their windows saying “No masks, alcohol sanitizing agents or wipes available.”

Long queues quickly form outside any shops that announce they have a supply of masks. Thousands braved chilly winds and camped overnight Tuesday outside an outlet at Kowloon Bay that said it had procured a supply of masks from Dubai.

The Hong Kong Medical Association said Thursday at least 10 private clinics have temporarily closed while some are opening for shorter hours because they were running out of surgical masks, reported public broadcaster RTHK. The association said if supplies do not arrive soon, another 400 clinics may also have to close.

A worker checks an empty shelf for rice at a supermarket in Hong Kong, Feb. 6, 2020.
A worker checks an empty shelf for rice at a supermarket in Hong Kong, Feb. 6, 2020.

Lack of surgical masks

The association said it had recently received about 30,000 masks from the government, but there was only enough for 600 private doctors, despite more than 1,000 requesting masks.

“We tell our members that if you do not have sufficient, adequate masks, you should keep safe and close your clinics and not to put yourself in a very dangerous position.” Dr. Douglas Chan, a member of the association’s council, was quoted by RTHK as saying.

“During the SARS period, there were fatalities of our comrades. Private doctors died during SARS. We hope this does not happen again in Hong Kong,” he said, referring to the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome in 2003, which killed more than 800 worldwide.

Meanwhile, hundreds of hospital workers who demanded the government close all of its border with China and provide adequate protective gear continued to strike for a fourth day. They threatened to continue to stay off work if the Hospital Authority refuses to negotiate with them.

On Thursday morning, long queues of workers formed outside several public hospitals across the city, as people waited to sign up for the strike, reported RTHK.

“If the safety of the medical workers can’t be assured, how can people go back to work?” the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance’s vice chairman, Ivan Lam, was quoted as saying. He warned of low morale and possible mass resignations if staff lacked adequate protection.

Closing borders

The government this week announced the closure of several borders with China but left a few open still. It said Wednesday it was impractical to close all of them but would impose a 14-day quarantine on anyone entering from the mainland. Many of the health workers said this was inadequate to contain the epidemic, citing fears that mainlanders would continue to rush to Hong Kong for treatment, as they have in past weeks.

Meanwhile, about 3,600 people are still stranded on the cruise ship World Dream at a port terminal in Hong Kong over the coronavirus scare while health authorities were searching for others who went on a previous cruise on the vessel.

The Center for Health Protection said late Wednesday that after eight travelers from mainland China who were on the ship Jan. 19-24 were confirmed to be suffering from coronavirus, it has been assessing the health of more than 1,800 passengers and more than 1,800 crew members on board. They were required to stay on board while the health inspection continued.

As of 9 p.m. Wednesday, three crew members have developed fever and were sent to a hospital while 33 crew members claimed to have developed upper respiratory tract infection symptoms. It called on people who took the cruise Jan. 19-24 and left the ship to report to the authorities.

A passenger posted a video on Facebook showing the outdoor facilities on the ship largely closed while many inside continued to play mah-jong and stay in their rooms watching television.

The death toll from the coronavirus outbreak in China rose to 563 Thursday. At least 230 cases have been confirmed outside China, including one fatality in Hong Kong and another in the Philippines.