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By Bruce Einhorn This is how nervous the people of Hong Kong are about severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS): As an April Fool's joke, a 14-year-old student allegedly concocted a bogus news report, posted on his own Web site, that the government was closing the city off to the outside world. That was enough to send thousands of frantic residents to clear off the shelves at food stores to avert starvation. In the interests of full disclosure: I joined the panic.
When I first heard the rumor that Hong Kong was shutting the airport and locking up the ports, sealing itself off, I ignored it. After all, I had other things to worry about. Like a slight fever. It was nothing serious, certainly not the high temperature that's a symptom of SARS. In normal times, it would be the sort of thing that would prompt me to take a Panadol and then get back to work. But these are not normal times in Hong Kong. Just sneezing in public is enough to make people suspect you're carrying SARS (see BW, 4/14/03, "Deadly Virus").
PLENTY OF TAXIS. So I decided to work from home. I put on my face mask: a top-of-the-line Kimberly-Clark N95 Particulate Respirator that has an odd, duck-bill shape. (N95s are hard to find in Hong Kong, but my concerned parents in the States mailed several hundred to me a few days earlier, along with boxes of alcohol wipes and some books to help keep the kids occupied while schools were closed.) I hopped in a cab. Luckily, it's very easy to get a taxi these days in Hong Kong, where there are no tourists and many of the expatriates have fled (see BW Online, 4/3/03/, "Living under the Shadow of SARS").
Nothing much happening when, later, I stopped by the drugstore across the street from my apartment building to buy some more Panadol and a new thermometer. With all the talk of food-supply disruptions, my wife and I figured it would be wise for me to stop by the Wellcome store down the street and buy a few things, just in case. But I was tired and decided I could easily do that shopping later. So I went up to my flat, washed my hands (everyone has become obsessive-compulsive about hand-washing these days, since the doctors say that it's possible to pick up the virus from a door knob or an elevator button) and tried to take a nap.
I couldn't sleep, so I looked out the window and got a shock. A big crowd had gathered outside the Wellcome, and several uniformed police officers were trying to restore order. Maybe this talk about Hong Kong getting quarantined was nonsense -- but with three children to feed, could I afford to be so confident?
ELBOWS FLYING. I put back on the N95 mask and dashed over to the store, bringing the baby stroller (sans baby) so I could use it to transport the groceries back home. Somehow I managed to make it inside, and racing through the two-story shop (in congested Hong Kong, it's not unusual to have split-level supermarkets), I grabbed heads of cauliflower, five-kilo bags of rice, cans of Star-Kist tuna, just about anything I could load in my grocery cart.
I got to the long line in front of the check-out counter, satisfied with my take and impressed with how everybody in the shop seemed able to stay civil to one another despite the panic.
Then a cry rose from the crowd: "Bitch!" So much for civility. A 30-something Chinese woman was cursing in English at a crowd of domestic helpers from the Philippines who were in her way. Stepping over their fully loaded grocery baskets and elbowing her way past the glaring Filipinas, the woman joined an elderly couple behind me on the line. Then she smiled at me apologetically. (She wasn't wearing a mask, so I could actually see her smile, which in itself is a rare thing in Hong Kong these days.) She told me she ordinarily wasn't a rude person, but she was trying to buy supplies for her parents and was out of patience.
"Why buy so much?" I asked.
"Do you trust the government?" she replied skeptically. Hong Kong's leaders were probably going to load up on groceries themselves first and then announce the closure of the port, my newfound acquaintance theorized. She wasn't about to take a chance.
She looked at my overflowing grocery cart. "Is that all you're buying?" she asked.
UH OH, NO T.P. Through my N95, I meekly said yes. She clearly didn't approve. Suddenly, I was having doubts myself. I noticed that everybody around me was buying dozens of rolls of toilet paper, but I had been so focused on food that I hadn't even thought about toilet paper!
If Hong Kong did end up sealed off from the world, then surely my family would need a lot more. With almost no manufacturing or agriculture, this city of 7 million people is almost entirely dependent on imports for its daily needs. But it was too late to turn back -- the crowd was too thick, and I was already at the check-out counter. I paid for my groceries, took them home -- and then turned around and went right back for more.
A few hours later I got a text message on my cell phone from the Hong Kong government. Pay no attention to that Internet rumor. Well, at least the grocery shopping is done for a while. Einhorn covers technology from Hong Kong for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Online Asia column, only on BusinessWeek Online