Panic buying reflects lack of confidence in HK govt amid virus

February 10, 2020 11:36
People walk past empty toilet paper shelves at a supermarket in Hong Kong on Feb. 6 following a bout of panic buying amid the China coronavirus outbreak. Photo: Reuters

There has been panic buying of rice, toilet paper and other essentials in Hong Kong in the past few days amid fears that tighter border restrictions to contain the coronavirus would choke off supplies coming from China.

While the continued rush to purchase face masks is understandable given the growing concerns over the Wuhan virus outbreak, the scramble for rice or toilet paper is a bit perplexing.

Hong Kong government has assured that food and essentials supply won’t be affected by the virus crisis, as border traffic control would only affect the flow of people, not the flow of goods.

An industry veteran has offered a similar reassurance. Kenneth Chan Kin-nin, chairman of the Rice Merchants’ Association of Hong Kong pointed out that more than 90 percent of the rice consumed in Hong Kong comes from Thailand and Vietnam, and that mainland China accounts for just 7.7 percent of the local rice supply.

In the case of toilet paper, the supply is indeed mostly from China. However, several leading producers have confirmed that their factories are little affected by the epidemic, and that current inventory is sufficient to meet the needs of Hong Kong for more than one month.

A temporary supply shortage of rice and toilet paper is largely due to panic buying. If every family or person stocks up on a year’s need of rice and toilet paper, that would indeed create a real shortage situation.

Given the recent developments, one can say that it will be difficult for society to function properly if there is a lack of trust among the citizens in the administration.

If the public loses faith in the government, it would prompt them to do everything possible to take matters into their own hands.

The Hong Kong government has suffered a trust crisis after the social unrest triggered by the extradition bill.

The run on rice and toilet paper seems absurd, but it is not entirely surprising given the government’s failure to convince the public that it is on top of the situation when it comes to ensuring supplies of essential items, given the face mask shortage fiasco. 

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 7

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist