Coronavirus Triggers a Run on Toilet Paper in Hong Kong

Empty shelves at a Hong Kong supermarket.

Hong Kong has been struggling with a shortage of face masks to protect against the coronavirus outbreak. Now, it could be facing a run on toilet paper. (Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

First, hand sanitizer disappeared from store shelves in Hong Kong; then, bleach and alcohol. People wake up at the crack of dawn to line up at pharmacies for surgical masks. But hand sanitizers and masks are products targeted for temporary needs; they’re not items normally kept in quantity around the house. It makes sense that supplies would run short in a densely populated city trying to fend off a mass infection.

However, a run on toilet paper represents a quantum leap in the anxiety-buying department. Toilet rolls were unavailable in supermarkets in parts of the city as posts circulated on social media showing empty shelves and shoppers lining up to snag rolls, fueling the latest shortage in a city that’s increasingly trying to isolate itself from China to keep the coronavirus from spreading.

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A video of shoppers in Hong Kong fighting over limited supplies of toilet paper:

The cause of the toilet paper shortage wasn’t immediately clear, but speculation was rife on social media about possible holdups involving the supply chain in Mainland China. The city’s government said that the “malicious act of spreading rumors” caused shortages of products. Sure enough, rice shelves are bare as are instant noodles and many items in the vegetable aisle. Now, panic buying has extended to toilet paper.

Vinda International Holdings, a Hong Kong-listed toilet paper producer, said some of its mainland factories will resume production this week or next according to government guidelines, adding it had no plans for closures. The group said in an emailed statement that the “tight supply” of toilet paper in Hong Kong supermarkets may have been due to leave taken by logistics workers over the Lunar New Year holiday, but that those people are returning to work.

“Supermarkets and other retail outlets are now restocking with our products to ensure sufficient supply,” the company said.

A run on toilet paper in Hong Kong supermarkets

Supermarket chains scrambled to fill shelves following a rush for essentials, such as toilet paper. Wellcome’s owner said the firm is “working closely with our suppliers to provide sufficient and diversified choices of products to our customers.” A spokesperson for Park n’ Shop said it is in close contact with suppliers, and stocks will improve as mainland workers return from holiday. Park n’ Shop said deliveries across the border have not been affected.

A rush in Hong Kong on toilet paper.
Supermarket chains scrambled to fill shelves following a rush for essentials, such as toilet paper. (Image: Screenshot via YouTube)

One young man carrying a sack of toilet paper rolls on the street said a friend had lined up to get them. Recent visits to eight supermarkets near the main business district by a Bloomberg reporter turned up no rolls, and empty shelves persisted at many stores on Thursday.

Two men stood outside a U Select supermarket in the Sheung Wan neighborhood on a recent night, trying to figure out how to plan their lives around having no rolls in the bathroom.

“We went to five stores and no toilet paper,” said Lok Gork, 30, a designer living in Hong Kong. “We got some wet wipes. You never know. You’re better safe than sorry.”

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