"I feel helpless when I read about the growing crisis in Hong Kong."Photo taken by the author's family.

‘Yes, everyone is scared’, texted my mother four days ago. ‘We bought rice and toilet paper last week. But now we can’t buy it anymore’.

I feel helpless when I read about the growing crisis in Hong Kong. Stuck in England, I can do nothing but watch as my home becomes a city of fear, distrust, and empty shelves. Perhaps this, the fact that I’m not there, is a blessing in disguise. It means that there is one fewer person using up precious supplies of food and face masks.

My parents tell me they are carefully rationing the three boxes of face masks they have left. Doing the maths, I realise that my presence would reduce their supply from two months’ worth to one-and-a-half months’ worth (assuming they each use one mask per day, a conservative estimate). Despite such straits, my parents are lucky: many more people don’t have masks at all.

Flicking through messages from family and friends, I cannot help but note the paralysis that grips the city. The subway system, usually packed with anxious commuters, has become eerily empty. A friend told me that there were so many seats available during rush-hour that he could have an entire bench of seats to himself.

“Without reliable guidance from the authorities, rumours have become even more contagious than the coronavirus itself.”

My parents, doing their grocery shopping, have noted that the gossipy owners of market stalls have become strangely subdued. And, for the first time in many years, people can walk down the streets without bumping into fellow pedestrians. All this, mind you, is happening in a city with one of the highest population densities of the world.

Beneath this unsettling quiet is a growing panic. People have not forgotten the spectre of SARS in 2003, when almost 300 people succumbed to a (different) strain of coronavirus from China. Already, the supermarkets have been cleared of their stocks of pasta, instant noodles, and vegetables - although interestingly enough, everyone tells me that there is plenty of wine and champagne left on supermarket shelves. Coronavirus fears, it turns out, dampens consumer demand for Dom Perignon.

There has also been a spike in demand for face masks. Outside my apartment block in Sha Tin, people form long queues hoping to buy a few boxes of face masks from Watson’s, a pharmaceutical chain store. Just about two weeks ago, 10,000 people lined up in Kowloon hoping to buy some of the rapidly dwindling stock.

It gets worse. Public trust in the authorities, which was already damaged from eight months of pro-democracy protests, has deteriorated beyond the point of no return. ‘We have to take into account the lack of transparency of the Communist Party’, a friend studying medicine told me. ‘It’s highly likely that some of the statistics are inaccurate, but by what margin we can only speculate’.

“Even in Cambridge, the shadow of the coronavirus looms.”

Without reliable guidance from the authorities, rumours have become even more contagious than the coronavirus itself. I, for one, had to spend a good part of an afternoon explaining to a relative that no, steam-cleaning face masks do not make them reusable. Some whisper that the Chinese government is letting the virus spread to Hong Kong on purpose to quash the democratic movement, while others claim that the coronavirus comes from a covert biological warfare program. And, when rumours online claimed that the city was about to run out of toilet paper, people rushed into the shops to snap up what they could.

Even in Cambridge, the shadow of the coronavirus looms. A few friends of mine, still undergraduates, have become more focussed on obtaining masks from British markets than studying for their degrees. Where a box of masks may once have gone for 20 to 50 Hong Kong dollars (10 Hong Kong dollars being the equivalent of one-pound sterling), they can now be sold for 250 to 300 Hong Kong dollars. This means that prices of face masks have increased by at least five times. By having their own supply of masks, my friends can sell them to the families of their friends at a discount, sparing them from the vicious price-gouging tactics used by unscrupulous sellers.


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Very soon, these friends tell me, face masks may supplement fiat money as a unit of exchange. A single, non-medical grade face mask is worth about 10 Hong Kong dollars; a single-use, medical-grade face mask (the type which surgeons wear) may fetch up to 50 Hong Kong dollars. These masks can then be swapped as part of a system of barter, just as cigarettes were traded for rations in Europe during World War Two. Granted, the Hong Kong of 2020 is in much better shape than the Germany of 1944. I, for one, doubt that masks will supplant actual money in daily exchange. But, as medical supplies become scarce, it is only natural that people begin hoarding their remaining supplies.

Look beyond the statistics and the headlines, and you will see the anger and despair. People living in a ‘world-class’ city are now scrambling for survival, and my friends and family are no exceptions to this new reality. Hoping to improve my parent’s odds, I asked my entrepreneurial friends if I could buy a few boxes of masks from them to send back to Hong Kong. They gave me rueful smiles. ‘Sorry. We’re all out of stock.’ This is the Hong Kong of today: out of stock, and nearly out of time.

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