This article originally appeared on VICE ASIA.
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) that started in Wuhan, China has spread globally, with at least 71,335 falling ill and 1,775 dying, according to the latest count. Now a global health emergency without any signs of slowing down, those living in Asia have been scrambling for supplies in groceries and drug stores to protect themselves.
In Hong Kong, rumours of a toilet paper shortage has led many to panic-buy the household staple, leading to an actual shortage in many stores. And apparently, it has gotten so bad that some have resorted to extreme measures just to get their hands on the hot commodity.
On Monday, February 17 at around 6 a.m., three robbers, one armed with a knife, stole 600 rolls of toilet paper, worth HK$1,000 ($128.76) outside a Wellcome supermarket in Mong Kok, The South China Morning Post reported.
According to police, the suspects robbed a delivery man just outside the store. By midday, two of the suspects had already been arrested, but police are still on the hunt for the third suspect.
Just two weeks ago, supermarkets around the city ran out of toilet paper rolls after a fake memo stating that toilet paper production had been suspended due to factory closures in mainland China, spread in messaging apps.
Residents then panic-hoarded toilet paper, causing government officials and business owners to intervene. In a statement, the Hong Kong government condemned “rumour mongers with evil intentions” and expressed regret over “the malicious act” of spreading false news of a toilet paper shortage.
In Hong Kong, robbery carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Given the supply issues the city is facing, Barrister Albert Luk Wai-hung called the case a “serious” one.
“Whether it is money or toilet paper being robbed, that’s not the most important consideration by the court. Since this incident is likely premeditated and it’s an armed gang robbery, these are all aggravating factors which make the case more serious compared with other robbery cases,” said Wai-hung.
Meanwhile, Gilly Wong Fung-han, Hong Kong Consumer Council’s CEO, appealed to the public on Sunday, February 16 to quit hoarding the rolls. With the country’s humid climate, toilet paper is susceptible to mould. She also added that major suppliers have already assured them of sufficient supply.
But it seems that the panic-buying isn’t going to ease anytime soon. Despite toilet paper being restocked, there is still a shortage of masks, causing distrust from the public. The hysteria is also partly fuelled by the city’s history of confronting past outbreaks, such as SARS in 2003, which left 299 Hong Kongers dead.
The city has confirmed its 57th coronavirus case on Sunday. There has been one death.