Virus crisis: What the panic buying, toilet roll robbery tell us

February 19, 2020 16:07
A customer purchases protective masks at a store in Hong Kong on Jan. 31. Hongkongers have been gripped with fear and apprehension amid the coronavirus outbreak, leading to panic buying of essential items. Photo: Bloomberg

Amid the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic, a ridiculously intriguing incident took place in Hong Kong early in the morning on Monday: three men stole toilet paper worth some HK$1,600 from a delivery man outside a supermarket in Mong Kok.

Shortly after the robbery, two men were arrested by the police, and a third person was tracked down the next day.

Under normal circumstances, toilet paper is something which every Hong Kong citizen takes for granted in their everyday life, and was therefore seldom, if ever, targeted by robbers before.

But now, the coronavirus crisis has triggered widespread fear among the public, leading to panic buying of daily necessities including packaged rice, noodles, and, of course, toilet paper.

As a result, shelves in grocery stores and supermarket chains across the city were cleared by shoppers in a matter of hours, and the phenomenon has been going on for days.

It is against that backdrop that criminals had eyed toilet paper this time, as the item has become a “scarce and precious commodity” in the eyes of many average citizens.

As we all know, face masks are in short supply in Hong Kong. But what about toilet paper? According to manufacturers and retailers, there is plenty of stable supply, and hence it is unnecessary for people to stock up on it.

Speaking to media on Tuesday morning before a regular Executive Council meeting, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said a relief package pledged previously to support businesses and low-income families amid the virus crisis has been increased to almost HK$28 billion following an assessment, and that HK$1 billion of the relief funding would be spent on sourcing masks globally.

Looking at the situation, we can say that the panic buying in the territory and the toilet paper robbery send two messages to the government: when an epidemic is underway, the administration must lead the people in fighting the outbreak, and second, authorities should take all possible measures to prevent the public from being gripped by panic.

The Macau and the Taiwan governments have done a much better job than the Carrie Lam-led administration in Hong Kong when it comes to reassuring citizens and ensuring social calm amid the coronavirus fears.

The Macau and Taiwanese people are calm and didn’t scramble desperately for essential items because their governments have devised proper and decisive measures in response to the coronavirus scare.

By contrast, the people of Hong Kong have been gripped by fear and apprehension, thereby giving rise to panic buying. The underlying reason for the panic is this: the people simply do not have enough trust in their government.

That being said, we believe that if the administration demonstrates enough sincerity and commitment, it is still not too late to turn things around and restore calm to society.

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

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

[Chinese version 中文版]

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong Economic Journal