A ride up the escalator to the dry goods and household products section revealed otherwise. With fears of the novel coronavirus gripping the city, a rumor of impending shortages circulating on social media had apparently spooked consumers, and pack after pack of toilet paper was flying off the shelves. Shoppers could barely carry the number of rolls they were snatching. By evening, not a single roll was left.
The panic stretched through the weekend. No more green-tea-scented toilet rolls, no more quilted plush rolls, no more jumbo rolls promising “clean comfort” and an inviting picture of a fat Labrador puppy. Such scenes have played out citywide, documented in videos showcasing the frenzy.
Staples such as rice have all but disappeared. And forget about hand soap, disinfectant, sanitizer or anything that brands itself “antibacterial” — these have been almost impossible to find for weeks. Shoppers have stood in line in the thousands to obtain surgical masks, only to be turned away empty-handed.
Some are resorting to dramatic and costly measures to procure necessities. On a recent flight back from Myanmar, a woman from Hong Kong was traveling with just one piece of luggage stuffed with surgical masks. She explained to staff at the check-in counter, who were questioning why she had been in Myanmar for less than 24 hours, that she was simply on a supply run.
The idea of anyone flying to Myanmar from Hong Kong — which brands itself “Asia’s world city” — to obtain necessities is staggering. When I lived in Myanmar, also known as Burma, several years ago, the country was under U.S. sanctions. It was nearly impossible to get a SIM card, although these days, if you’re lucky, you might find almond milk and sour cream.
Gloves have also been in short supply in Hong Kong, as people fearful of the coronavirus try to minimize direct hand exposure. At the grocery store, a woman had taken to covering her hands with plastic bags. At a subway station, a man was holding his phone in a zip-top bag.
The coronavirus outbreak, which started in China’s Hubei province and has rapidly made its way around the world, has not spared Hong Kong. As of Sunday, the city had recorded 36 cases, including nine members of the same family who shared a hot-pot meal.
But compounding the difficulties of the city’s response is a widespread deficit of trust in the Hong Kong government — a commodity that is perhaps in even shorter supply than toilet paper. As one Bloomberg Opinion columnist put it: The semiautonomous financial hub, once known as a bastion of global trade and capitalism, is now showing signs of a failed state.
The heightened anxiety over the coronavirus has followed months of political upheaval that battered Hong Kong’s reputation as a stable base for international business. More than 7,000 people have been arrested since June, and it is hard to find Hong Kongers who have not tasted the overwhelming sensation of inhaling tear gas.
The Hong Kong government’s response to the virus threat has reinforced a sense that it is incapable of handling the crisis, notwithstanding the city’s experience during the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which killed nearly 300 here. While officials have pledged to ensure adequate supplies, it’s clear that few people are convinced.
Other jurisdictions took swift and sometimes dramatic measures to curtail the spread of the pneumonia-like virus. Singapore enlisted its armed forces to distribute masks to the public, dipping into its national stockpile. Taiwan implemented a rationing system for masks and imposed a flat fee on each, of about 2 cents, to prevent price gouging. Both those places have effectively closed their border to arrivals from mainland China.
Even Macao, the semiautonomous Chinese territory known mostly as a gambling center, took drastic action to protect its people, shuttering its casinos, despite the certain hit to the local economy.
In Hong Kong, by contrast, prices of masks have skyrocketed, with some selling at a dollar apiece. Carrie Lam, the city’s chief executive, has refused to close the border with mainland China, as demanded by striking medical workers.
Underpinning it all is the Hong Kong government’s continuing challenge of legitimacy. The city’s leadership is not directly elected but rather appointed by a 1,200-member committee, which picks from a handful of candidates prescreened by the Chinese Communist Party — a process designed to ensure that top officials are loyal to Beijing.
A poll last month by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute found that just 19 percent of Hong Kong residents trust the city’s government, with 69 percent saying they distrust the administration.
With virus fears at fever pitch, civil society has effectively taken over some functions of government, creating infographics on how to effectively wash one’s hands and wear surgical masks correctly. A group on the messaging app Telegram, the backbone of organization for the pro-democracy protests, has been set up to crowdsource and disseminate information on where masks are available.
Meanwhile, protests continue. A crowd gathered this past weekend to commemorate a university student who died during demonstrations last year. When the protesters started to barricade roads, police swooped in and arrested more than 100, including five elected local representatives.
A well-placed former Hong Kong government official, on learning that I was from Singapore, told me during a recent conversation: “You are lucky. At least your government has to win elections. Over here, no matter what they do, right or wrong, ultimately we all know they don’t really answer to us.”