The mad rush for masks

January 08, 2020 11:18
Concerns that the mysterious pneumonia outbreak in Wuhan could spread in Hong Kong have resulted in a sharp rise in demand for masks. Photo: HKEJ

You must have noticed it yourself as you take the MTR and go to work or school: there are more commuters and pedestrians wearing masks these days – and they are not necessarily demonstrating for "five demands, not one less".

It's not just that the flu season is upon us. It has more to do with the outbreak of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, the capital of central China's Hubei province, which has raised fears of its spreading in Hong Kong.

Heightened concerns over the mystery virus are understandable, considering that nearly 300 died with the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in our city in 2003. It also originated from across the border.

But so far health authorities said the Wuhan outbreak has nothing to do with SARS, bird flu or the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS).

Still, as they say, it's better to be safe than sorry. About 30 people in Hong Kong have already fallen ill after visiting Wuhan since the end of 2019, although all of them are in stable condition and many have since been discharged from hospital.

And so growing fears for the possible onset of another outbreak have resulted in an abnormally sharp rise in the demand for surgical masks. 

This isn't needless alarm as our local health authorities have raised the alert level for the Wuhan outbreak to serious.

In fact, it could also be seen as a sign of responsible citizenry or a display of community spirit.  Wearing masks for personal hygiene means not only that we don't want to catch the disease but also that we don't want to spread it to others.

Besides, the SAR government has warned that those suspected of having contracted the mystery virus may face a six-month jail term and fine if they refuse isolation and quarantine.

This came after a 45-year-old woman from Wuhan with symptoms of respiratory infection refused to be confined at the Ruttonjee Hospital in Wan Chai.

Meanwhile, it appears that surgical masks have become the object of speculative activity in our profit-oriented city.

Supplies of N95 masks are running low in local pharmacies and online stores. 

Local reports also say that some pharmaceutical stores in Mong Kok have started marking up mask prices, sometimes as much as 10 times to HK$500 per 50 pieces, from the normal price of HK$50.

Most in demand are children's masks, thanks to panicky mothers who have been running around town to snap up all the masks they could lay their hands on for their kids.

In view of the acute shortage of masks, it is said that even medical clinics are limited to five boxes of masks per order.

Hongkongers are asking family members and friends who are traveling abroad to bring home masks, assuring them that the emergency anti-mask law, part of the moves against violent protesters, remains suspended pending the government's appeal.

Social media may be partly to blame for the growing fear of the Wuhan virus, which is a trending topic in most local online forums.

This, despite the fact that the number of visitor arrivals from the mainland has plunged amid the months-long protests.

All this brings a sort of déjà vu to many in the city, particularly the panic over SARS and the mad rush for masks.

Of course, there is no need for excessive worry. Not only have health authorities ruled out SARS in the latest outbreak, but the situation today is also quite different from that in 2003, when mainland authorities tried to suppress the news for about a month, leading to the contagion.

It is fair to assume that China has learned a big lesson from the SARS experience and is now only too keen to follow the accepted practices in dealing with outbreaks.

I've chatted with some mainland friends about the Wuhan virus, and it appears that they are much less worried about it than many in Hong Kong.

Part of the reason could be that people across the border have much bigger living spaces, as opposed to a small and crowded place like Hong Kong where the chances of diseases spreading are much greater. 

And as the demand for masks soars, it is no wonder that one of the most welcome gifts for the Lunar New Year would be masks – along with red packets, of course.

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EJ Insight writer