Hong Kong―Hong Kongers stripped shop shelves bare Tuesday as panic buying set in following mixed messaging from the government over whether it plans a China-style hard lockdown this month.
Uncertainty over COVID rules has sent the city’s residents flocking to supermarkets, chemists, and vegetable stores to stock up, leaving shelves empty across the city.
Photos circulating on social media showed people had trouble finding a variety of items including meat, vegetables, frozen foods, 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.
The financial hub is in the grips of its worst coronavirus outbreak, registering tens of thousands of new cases each day, overwhelming hospitals, and shattering the city’s zero-COVID strategy.
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 the help of mainland China.
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, a day after a senior Chinese health official described it as the best option.
On Tuesday multiple Hong Kong media including HK01, Singtao, and South China Morning Post also said authorities were planning a variety of lockdown options for the test period, citing sources.
SCMP’s said the current favoured option was a nine-day “large-scale lockdown” where most residents would only be allowed out to by food.
One of the most densely populated cities on Earth, Hong Kong’s supermarkets have limited backroom storage space and saw waves of panic buying at the start of the pandemic two years ago.
City apartments are also some of the smallest in the world leaving little space to stock up.
‘Rules change every day’
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 high transmissible Omicron variant.
More than 190,000 infections have been recorded in the last two months compared to just 12,000 for the rest of the pandemic.
The government released a statement late Monday saying food supplies remained constant and that there was no need for panic buying.
“You don’t need to worry about food and other necessities, Hong Kong has sufficient goods and material reserve,” the city’s number two official John Lee told reporters as he presided over 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.
“Rush to buy and stock up, let the people decide how to live their life.”
Tom Grundy, editor of the Hong Kong Free Press news website, described the latest panic buying as “a massive failure of gov’t communications”.
“Rules changing every few days, u-turns, botched stats, poor data disclosure,” he wrote on Twitter.
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 backpeddling on promises.
The decision to mass test residents was itself a policy U-turn—Lam had previously ruled out such a step before backing it last month.
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 being built with Chinese help.
That will cover roughly two days of infections at Hong Kong’s current official caseload.