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Lockdown fears spark panic buying in Hong Kong

Hong Kongers stripped shop shelves bare Tuesday as panic buying set in following mixed messages from the government over whether it plans a China-style hard lockdown this month.

People shop at a supermarket in Hong Kong on March 1, 2022, as panic buying returned to the city with many supermarket shelves stripped bare following mixed messaging from the government over whether it plans a city lockdown later this month when it tests all residents. (Photo by DALE DE LA REY / AFP)

Hong Kongers stripped shop shelves bare Tuesday as panic buying set in following mixed messages from the government over whether it plans a China-style hard lockdown this month.

The latest disarray came as the city’s top medical school estimated just under a quarter of all residents had been infected with Covid-19 since the start of the year.

Photos circulating on social media showed people had trouble finding a variety of items including meat, vegetables, frozen food, noodles, paracetamol and testing kits.

“We are like ants going home, grabbing a bit at one spot at a time,” a woman, who gave her surname Wu, told AFP on Tuesday in a supermarket where most vegetables and meat had been snapped up.

One of the most densely populated cities on Earth, Hong Kong has supermarkets with limited backroom storage space.

Apartments are also some of the smallest in the world, leaving little space to stock up.

The vast majority of Hong Kong’s food is imported from mainland China and the current supply crunch has been worsened by cross-border truckers getting infected by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Delay testing appeal
The financial hub is in the grip of its worst coronavirus outbreak, registering tens of thousands of new cases each day, overwhelming hospitals and shattering the city’s zero-Covid strategy.

More than 190,000 infections have been recorded in the last two months, compared with just 12,000 for the rest of the pandemic.

Authorities plan to test all 7.4 million residents this month and isolate all infections either at home or in a series of camps that are still being constructed with mainland help.

City leader Carrie Lam had initially ruled out a mainland-style lockdown, where people are confined to their homes during the testing period.

But on Monday, health chief Sophia Chan confirmed it was still on the table.

Multiple Hong Kong media said authorities were planning a variety of lockdown options for the test period, citing sources.

The South China Morning Post said the current favoured option was a nine-day “large-scale lockdown” where most residents would only be allowed out to buy food.

Experts from the University of Hong Kong published new modelling data on Tuesday which estimated the current number of infections at 1.7 million.

They warned that mass testing should be delayed a month rather than under current plans when the wave would be at its peak with as many as 183,000 daily cases.

“Doing so earlier, especially when case numbers will still be too high to properly and appropriately isolate and care for, paying particular attention to population mental and emotional wellbeing in HK’s unique context, would not be recommended,” Gabriel Leung, dean of HKU’s medical school, wrote on Twitter.

‘So many questions’
The government says food supplies are stable and that residents will soon be informed of plans.

“We will notify everyone in advance so you can be well prepared,” number two official John Lee told reporters at the opening of a 3,900-bed isolation facility where mild infections will be treated.

But analysts said uncertainty and distrust were fuelling consumer habits.

“We have so many questions but all answers are ‘to be confirmed’,” Chan Ka-lok, an international politics scholar at Baptist University, wrote on social media.

Faith in government assurances is low in Hong Kong, where authorities have carried out a two-year crackdown on dissent after huge democracy protests, and have a history of back-pedalling on promises.

The decision on mass tests was itself a U-turn.

It is not yet clear when testing will take place and what the government will do with all the cases it finds.

Some 70,000 isolation units for mild cases are due to come online in the coming weeks, in requisitioned hotels, public housing units and camps.

At Hong Kong’s current official caseload, that would cover roughly two days’ worth of new infections.

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