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Coronavirus Is Driving Irrational Purchases In Hong Kong


Switching gears now to the coronavirus outbreak in China, officials say the number of infections has now risen to more than 37,000, with more than 800 people dead. In Hong Kong, officials have instituted a mandatory 14-day quarantine for anyone entering the territory from the mainland. So far, the outbreak has been kept relatively under control in Hong Kong. But as NPR's Rebecca Hersher reports, the constant warnings have a lot of people on edge.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Please step back from the train doors.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hong Kong's subway system is modern, fast and spotless. But these days, there are constant announcements about washing your hands, reminders that the stations up next to the Chinese border are closed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Your attention please. Following the government's measures for outbreak of virus...

HERSHER: There are workers disinfecting escalator handrails, hand sanitizer stations, saran wrap over the elevator buttons. On Sunday, people looking to capitalize on the panic were standing next to subway turnstiles selling cheap, overpriced face masks out of shopping bags.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Ten pieces 150.

HERSHER: The SARS epidemic hit the city hard in 2003. Food and other goods are still coming into Hong Kong, but some people here are stocking up on essentials anyway - or what feel like the essentials. At some supermarkets, the household goods sections are empty - toilet paper, Kleenex, paper towels - gone. Same with bleach - but also toilet bowl cleaner and other non-obvious things.


HERSHER: Yeah, they're almost sold out of kitchen gloves.

HERSHER: Ayumi Ai went to the supermarket on Sunday. She's from Japan originally and isn't feeling too nervous. She wasn't here during SARS, but she says people who were feel differently.

AYUMI AI: Those people who've been through SARS, they're very, very cautious.

HERSHER: She's with Devin Nelson. He's American, and he's a bit more blunt.

DEVIN NELSON: Oh, people are panicked.

HERSHER: Nelson and I say they're wearing the masks more to be polite than to protect themselves. The masks aren't a particularly effective way to prevent contracting the virus. Washing your hands is more important. But if you don't wear a mask out in public, it makes a lot of people here nervous.

AI: If you get in a taxi without a mask, you get some, like, look from...


AI: ...The driver.

NELSON: I went and got a haircut without a mask the other day, and the guy is, like, taking my temperature. And, you know, like, he didn't seem comfortable, so I'd rather avoid that.

HERSHER: As for whether they've stocked up on anything because of the outbreak, Nelson and I say no, not really. But actually, come to think of it...

NELSON: I'd buy toilet paper if I found it just because...

AI: (Laughter).

NELSON: ...Just because.

HERSHER: Just like everyone else wants it, so then you want it.

Interview over, we pull our masks back over our mouths and say goodbye - no handshakes.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News, Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
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