HONG KONG (Reuters) – Panicky Hong Kong residents scooped loads of tissues and noodles into supermarket trolleys on Friday despite government assurances that supplies would be maintained during an outbreak of a new coronavirus that emerged in mainland China last month.
Customers wear masks as they pick facial tissues in a supermarket, following the outbreak of a new coronavirus, in Hong Kong, China February 7, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
Hong Kong has had 24 cases of the virus, and one of only two deaths outside mainland China where almost 640 people have died in the outbreak.
“Everyone’s snatching whatever they can get. I don’t even know what’s going on,” said a 72-year-old woman surnamed Li as she clutched two bags of toilet roll.
Shoppers have been clearing supermarket shelves of staples like rice and meat as well as cleaning products such as soap.
The city’s government has condemned “malicious rumors” about shortages which have led to panic buying “and even chaos”, while supermarkets have put limits on the amount of products, including toilet paper, rice, and antiseptics, that people can buy.
But hundreds of shoppers thronged city supermarkets again on Friday, loading up their trolleys.
Xie Feng, Beijing’s top representative in Hong Kong, told diplomats and business groups the central government would support Hong Kong’s fight against the virus and guarantee the flow of essential supplies, the South China Morning Post reported.
The health scare comes after months of anti-government protests in the former British colony over fears its special autonomy is being whittled away by Beijing, which denies doing so.
Worry over the virus has led to new friction, with many people, particularly medical workers, demanding that the city government does more to stop the virus crossing in from the mainland by sealing off the border.
Hong Kong has closed some cross-border links but has said completely sealing it would be inappropriate, impractical and discriminatory.
On Saturday, Hong Kong will introduce quarantine for two weeks for all people arriving from the mainland.
Thousands of hospital workers have been on strike this week to press the government to close the border and on Friday they occupied the headquarters of the government-backed Hospital Authority.
“I’m quite disappointed the government refuses to listen to our demands and their policies are not very effective to contain the spread,” said a 23-year old male health worker surnamed Yeung.
Separately, city authorities said they were conducting checks for the virus on a quarantined cruise ship carrying some 3,600 people that docked in Hong Kong this week.
Cruise officials from the ship, the World Dream, said they were waiting to see how long it would have to remain in quarantine, after eight mainland people who had been on it in January tested positive.
Health officials are trying to trace people who had traveled on the ship, many of whom disembarked in Hong Kong in January.
Reporting by Pak Yiu, Jessie Pang and Clare Jim; Writing by Farah Master