What are the reasons behind the great toilet roll robbery?

February 19, 2020 09:34
Pedestrians walk past huge stocks of toilet paper for sale outside a store in Tsuen Wan. Despite ample supply of toilet rolls and other household items, many Hongkongers resort to panic-buying amid the coronavirus outbreak. Photo: AFP

Three knife-wielding men robbed a delivery man in Mong Kok on Monday and ran away with 50 packs of toilet rolls worth just over HK$1,000.

The robbery took place amid fears of a supply shortage sparked by the coronavirus outbreak, which has prompted many Hongkongers to snap up all the toilet rolls they could buy, along with other household necessities such as rice, cooking oil and cleaning products.

The stolen goods were later recovered at a nearby guesthouse and two suspects were arrested at the scene. The police tracked down a third one on Tuesday.

The whole thing sounds like a joke, as toilet rolls are not worth much, and certainly not worth the risk of committing a crime to have them.

The robbery may not make any sense, but it could indicate how desperate those three men were.

The way I see it, it may have something to do with the battered underground economy.

We are, of course, aware that the catering and tourism sectors have been badly hit by months of social unrest, and now by the current epidemic.

But the underground economy is also severely affected when people prefer to stay at home as much as possible.

The Hong Kong government has granted subsidies to support struggling travel agencies, retailers and restaurants, but workers in the underground economy are not getting any financial aid.

It’s possible that the three men have run out of money and can think of no other means of making a living, and so they came up with this poorly-thought-out robbery.

Netizens have suggested other explanations.  But until the police find out more about the case, there is no way to know the truth.

But one thing is for sure, the epidemic has set off some sort of butterfly effect and more unexpected repercussions could unfold.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 18

Translation by Julie Zhu with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist