Viral hysteria: Hong Kong panic sparks run on toilet paper

Rice and pasta have also become a popular target for panic buying

Afp February 06, 2020
PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG: Panic buyers in Hong Kong have descended on supermarkets to snap up toilet paper after false online claims of shortages, prompting authorities to appeal for calm as the city's seven million residents fret about a deadly coronavirus outbreak.

Videos obtained by AFP showed long queues of frantic shoppers packing trolleys with multiple packs of toilet rolls, with some arguments breaking out.

Rice and pasta have also become a popular target for panic buying.

Lois Strange, a 32-year-old Briton who teaches at a city school, said she was greeted by chaotic scenes at her local supermarket on Wednesday morning.

"It was packed," she told AFP. "Everyone was just grabbing as many toilet rolls as they could, packs and packs of them."

She said she managed to get a couple of them herself in the melee.

"I literally have one roll left at home myself. So I needed to go buy some, not because I'm panicking like everyone else," she added.

Hong Kong's government released a statement late Wednesday saying false rumours over shortages of goods such as rice and toilet paper were "leading to panic buying and even chaos".

The statement blamed people "with evil intentions" for carrying out "the malicious act of spreading rumours when the city is fighting against the disease".

While Hong Kong has closed most of its land borders to mainland China, where the coronavirus outbreak began, freight services have not been affected, the government said.

"There are sufficient stocks of staple food including rice and pastas. There is no need for the public to worry," the statement added.

Harold Yip, founder of Mil Mill, a Hong Kong-based waste paper recycling company, told AFP they received over 100 enquiries from members of the public about toilet paper on Wednesday alone.

RTHK News reported that toilet paper and rice at one supermarket in the district of Wan Chai - which had been fully restocked overnight - were cleared within 30 minutes of the store opening on Thursday morning.

But the supermarket chain Wellcome said rumours of shortages were unfounded.

The coronavirus has killed more than 550 people in China since spreading from the central city of Wuhan late last year.

Hong Kong now has 21 confirmed infections, including one patient who died.

The majority of those infected came from mainland China.

But in recent days there has been a spike in carriers with no history of travel to the mainland, sparking fears local transmissions were growing.

The city's pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam has faced growing calls to close the border with China, a step she has been reluctant to take saying it would be economically damaging and discriminatory.

Her administration has gradually cut the number of land border crossings to just two.

Lam has announced that anyone arriving from the Chinese mainland from Saturday would face a mandatory two-week quarantine.

While Hong Kong maintains close economic and cultural links to the Chinese mainland, seething distrust of the authorities in Beijing permeates the city.

The 2003 SARS outbreak, which Beijing initially covered up, killed 299 people in Hong Kong and left lasting psychological scars on the densely populated city.

Lam already suffers from record-low approval ratings after using riot police to quell seven months of huge and often violent pro-democracy protests.

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