The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Hong Kong, coronavirus brings panic — and fresh fury toward the government

People wait in line to purchase surgical masks at a shopping mall in Hong Kong on Wednesday. (Anthony Kwan/AFP/Getty Images)
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HONG KONG — As Hong Kong awoke Thursday, local media outlets were on the streets preparing for live broadcasts, a staple of the city's news consumption during the past eight months of political unrest.

This time, though, there were no throngs of black-clad demonstrators occupying roads or setting up barricades, no young people in full-face respirators preparing to battle police or mix chemicals for gasoline bombs.

The broadcasts instead conveyed scenes perhaps equally anxiety-inducing: hundreds of people, alarmed by the spread of the new coronavirus, waiting in line to purchase surgical masks and hand sanitizer. At one point, more than 3,000 viewers were tuned in, watching as pharmacy staff emerged from behind metal shutters to distribute cards that allowed each would-be customer to purchase a set number of masks. Only one-tenth of those waiting in line were able to get ahold of new masks.

Hong Kong, gripped by a government crackdown on pro-democracy protests that has battered the economy and led to thousands of arrests, faces a looming new crisis as the deadly coronavirus spreads from the city of Wuhan all over greater China and beyond. As of Thursday, the territory had recorded 10 confirmed cases.

The fear is existential for this densely populated city of 7 million, where about 300 died and more than 1,000 were infected in the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, epidemic of 2003. The coronavirus threat comes as public trust in authorities has collapsed amid the political turmoil, contributing to panic and a rush for supplies.

At a branch of CRCare, a local pharmacy chain, in the Aberdeen neighborhood, a shop assistant said a delivery of masks arrived at 9 a.m. — just 120 boxes, which sold out in 10 minutes. She didn’t know when new stocks would arrive. Customers had been waiting in line before 6 a.m.; some became aggressive as they were turned away after supplies ran out.

This reporter tried looking for hand sanitizer in about a dozen locations across the city, returning empty-handed and without any indication as to when deliveries might arrive. Online retailers offer little help: After an hour-long wait to enter the online store of Watsons, a pharmacy chain, a few minutes clicking around the items for sale revealed that every kind of hand sanitizer, disinfectant, medical wet wipe and antiseptic had been sold out.

Panic buying has extended to grocery stores, where fresh vegetables are in short supply and household cleaning products such as laundry detergent and hand soap are being snatched up.

The Hong Kong government had pledged to source supplies from around the world, noting that a “stable supply of equipment for health protection is of paramount importance.” Top officials have said for weeks that they are working hard to meet the demand for supplies.

That message, however, has done nothing to assuage Billy Wong, a man in his 50s who spent his entire morning waiting to buy surgical masks.

“I can’t understand how Hong Kong is in this situation,” Wong said. “Our government is unable to see problems until the last minute, and by then it is too late.”

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Wong said his message for the Hong Kong government would be to “go to hell.” When one woman interviewed by local news outlet Apple Daily said Hong Kong leaders should “eat s---,” others waiting in line started clapping and cheering her on.

By contrast, authorities in Singapore are distributing packs containing four face masks to households that need it, asking citizens to prioritize the vulnerable, such as the elderly and children. Hong Kong’s government on Thursday debunked suggestions that it would do the same.

In Taiwan, authorities have said nobody needs to hoard masks, as officials have arranged for 23 million masks destined for export to be released into the local market, while announcing plans to produce 4 million more daily. Along with Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore were among the worst-hit by SARS in 2003.

Many employers in Hong Kong, including the government, have shuttered offices and ordered staff to work from home. Across the city, normally packed subway trains and stations are eerily quiet.

Meanwhile, Hong Kongers across the political spectrum have pushed for authorities to close the border with mainland China to prevent the spread of infection — and to prevent mainlanders from obtaining supplies from Hong Kong. The city’s government has enforced a partial closure of about half the border crossings with mainland China, saying that will be enough to dramatically reduce arrivals, and it has said other measures such as school closures will also stem the spread.

Memories of the SARS crisis run deep here. The outbreak — unknown to the public at the time as Chinese officials had covered it up — reached the Asian financial center when a doctor who had treated pneumonia patients in Guangzhou traveled to Hong Kong and spread the infection to about a dozen others who were staying on the same hotel floor, triggering outbreaks across the territory and three other cities.

That experience has led to fears that China could once again suppress information on the severity of the coronavirus outbreak on the mainland.

“The coverup for two or three months put Hong Kong in a totally devastating situation; we lost time to prepare for the disease back in 2003,” said Alex Lam, who chairs the Hong Kong SARS Mutual Help Association. His organization appealed to the Hong Kong government last week to stop anyone who had visited Wuhan in the past month from entering Hong Kong, days before the government imposed any travel restrictions on those from the Chinese city.

“The Hong Kong government can and should be doing better, by locating isolation wards and ensuring a good supply of masks,” he said.

Carrie Lam, the Chinese Communist Party’s handpicked leader of Hong Kong, has said her only consideration in dealing with this issue is “public health” and that “no other factor” is involved in her decision to only partially limit travelers from the mainland. Yet after unprecedented unrest in Hong Kong, fueled by fears that China is eroding the territory’s autonomy, Lam cannot escape accusations that she is subservient to mainland authorities and unable to put the needs of her territory ahead of loyalty to Beijing.

“If it’s not political, then I can’t find a reason for her actions,” said Alex Lam. “Everything that Carrie Lam is doing, she has to get approval from her boss, and that is just something different that Hong Kong people have to deal with.”

Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.

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