The Coronavirus Hits Hong Kong? Quick, Toilet Paper!

HONG KONG — “It’s gone,” I overheard my neighbor Mrs. Wong shout in Cantonese from her balcony to a man on a bicycle downstairs. “Maai saai la!” Sold out.

This was unbelievable. I jumped from the sofa, pulled on my shoes and headed across the island, to our single village supermarket, Wellcome. Just outside, a woman was struggling to bungee-tie a tower of paper towels and facial-tissue boxes onto her rickety three-wheeled shopping basket.

I raced to the back of the store. It was true: the normally abundant shelves were empty; there was not a single roll of toilet paper left in the supermarket. The same goes for well beyond my little, outlying island: According to the TV news, toilet paper had vanished overnight from supermarkets throughout the city. Hong Kong was on toilet-paper crisis alert.

First, hand sanitizer disappeared from store shelves; then, bleach and alcohol. People wake up at the crack of dawn to line up at pharmacies for surgical masks. (This being Hong Kong, there’s a Telegram channel with up-to-the-minute information about which shops have stock and how long the lines are.) But hand sanitizers and masks are products targeted for temporary needs; they’re not things you’d normally keep in quantity around the house. It makes sense that they’d run short in a densely populated city trying to fend off mass infection.

A run on toilet paper represents a quantum leap in the anxiety-buying department. Especially in Hong Kong, a city where the main problem with toilet paper is, arguably, that there’s too much of it.

Hong Kong real estate is the most expensive in the world, and bathrooms can be so tiny that the shower head is directly above the toilet seat. Yet toilet paper here is sold in long, bulky 12-roll plastic-wrapped packages with flap handles. These you must schlep back home on foot or in public transport — this is not a “throw it in the back of your Suburban” city. Oh, and forget about buying just one pack. Hong Kong toilet paper is always priced as a twofer. Show up at the counter with just one, and get ready to be toilet-paper shamed by a checkout clerk who’s horrified you’d turn your back on your God-given discount.

Once you’ve waddled home between your two bulky packs of scented Tempo, premium three-ply Virjoy or puppy-logo Andrex, where do you stash this bounty in a 200-square-foot apartment with no closets? Hong Kongers are ever-resourceful: That fluffy Andrex puppy hides under our beds, or lurks in our hallways. Two stacks make a great improvised coffee table or nightstand. I’ve seen living rooms — as well as tiny restaurants — with entire walls, floor to ceiling, lined with toilet-paper packages, like a gallery installation.

Why, then, did Hong Kongers suddenly start panic-buying an abundant commodity we have no room to store? On Wednesday, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that visitors to Hong Kong from mainland China would be subject to a mandatory 14-day home quarantine. Hong Kongers had been clamoring for Mrs. Lam to completely close the land border. Several thousand health care workers went on strike demanding the same.

Mrs. Lam has now tightened access through most border points — with an unanticipated ripple effect: Rumors started circulating online that goods from the mainland would be delayed, maybe even cut off. When Mrs. Lam announced more restrictions on entry into the city, the people of Hong Kong didn’t sigh with relief: We ran to supermarkets and panic-bought three-ply toilet tissue.

“We Hong Kongers have to take care of ourselves, because we can’t trust the government to do it,” my 30-something friend Frankie, a social worker, said to me the other day. Public trust in the city’s government, institutions and police is at a historic low. The determination and grit displayed by Hong Kongers during a long season of pro-democracy protests last year is now channeled into fighting the coronavirus epidemic at the street level, day after day.

A few months ago, Hong Kongers stood in lines of thousands to vote in local elections and, before that, in parades of hundreds of thousands to demand universal suffrage. Now we all wear surgical masks, cough into our elbows and wash our hands (Back and front! Get those finger webs! At least 20 seconds!) 10 times a day. These are sensible, rational actions, and they arguably are protecting us all. As of Saturday, Hong Kong, a city of 7.5 million, had 26 confirmed cases of coronavirus and one death — fewer than Singapore, some 1,600 miles away from China.

But rational actions can only go so far in the face of the unknown, and panic has an infection rate far higher than any coronavirus.

The empty products shelves of our village Wellcome brought back memories of other times, and other places, when I’ve found myself in the middle of stress-hoarding. On days before hurricanes in New York, certain items predictably vanish from stock: bottled water, white bread, peanut butter. I’m old enough to remember the special shelf that my parents kept in the back of our New Jersey basement during the J.F.K. years, lined with cans of tomatoes, beans and tuna fish, our first line of defense in the event of nuclear attack.

And now, as I stand in a toilet paper–less Wellcome, panic strikes again. If toilet paper has disappeared, what else is gone? By instinct, I head for the bread aisle: all there, phew. Peanut butter, check. Water, ditto. Why hasn’t anyone loaded up on those? Then I remember that only about 100 Westerners live on my island of 5,000. Different culture, different scarcity anxieties. Memories of plagues, wartime occupation, SARS and bird flu are etched in Hong Kong’s DNA.

Sure enough, the rice shelves are bare, save for a bag of pricey, imported, short-grain organic brown rice. The instant-noodle aisle is depleted, and the vegetable section is down to a few lonely scraps of bok choy.

But I’m pleased to report that no significant cultural differences are evident at the wine and beer counters: The selection is thinning out as fast as it would be in Brooklyn under similar circumstances. Panic buying may be irrational, but it can be comforting. I buy two bottles of wine, at a twofer discount.

And I head home, like a good Hong Konger, to wash my hands.

Daisann McLane (@daisann) is a writer living in Hong Kong.

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