Hong Kong leader urges calm as lockdown fears spark panic buying | Coronavirus pandemic

Hong Kong’s leader appealed for calm after residents bared supermarket shelves amid fears of mandatory mass COVID-19 testing and a rumored citywide lockdown .

Local media reported that mandatory COVID testing would begin after March 17, raising concerns that people will be forced into self-isolation and families whose members test positive will be separated.

Under a so-called “dynamic zero COVID” policy, the Chinese territory is imposing some of the strictest pandemic restrictions on Earth, even as the rest of the world learns to live with the virus.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday called on the public “not to fall prey to rumors to avoid unnecessary fears being raised”, while insisting that the food supply and in property remains normal, according to a government statement.

“There is no need to worry about the public, they should remain vigilant and pay attention to information released by the government to avoid being misled by rumours.”

Isabella Ng Fung-sheung, associate director of the Department of Asian and Political Studies at the University of Education in Hong Kong, described the city’s pandemic strategy as a “disaster” that fueled fear and anxiety in the within the community.

“Ordinary citizens are extremely worried,” Ng told Al Jazeera. “People are frantically grabbing every food available in supermarkets.”

Ng said an earlier announcement that the summer school holidays would be moved to March and April had also caused “chaos among schools, teachers, parents and students”, while strict travel rules and quarantine “scared people and investors”.

“Schools are on their own to decide how to revamp the curriculum,” Ng said.

City-wide lockdown

Authorities plan to test the city’s 7.4 million residents three times over nine days, with the government recommending people stay at home during this time, the Sing Tao Daily newspaper reported, citing unidentified sources.

Exemptions would be granted to those who purchase food, seek medical treatment and maintain societal operations. Hong Kong’s stock market would continue to operate, the newspaper said.

Lam had previously said she was not considering a citywide lockdown.

An expatriate resident told Al Jazeera he had spent the past four days trying to get groceries through a popular supermarket’s online delivery service without success.

“Last night we went to ParKnShop, queues were 10-15 people at each register, supplies of fresh meat were limited to non-existent,” the resident said, requesting anonymity due to the of concern over the city’s national security law, which has been used to quell most of the dissent in the city. “The shelves seemed well stocked on most other items.”

“I think the government operated on the assumption that ‘zero COVID’ was always going to work and didn’t develop any contingency plans in case it didn’t,” the resident said. “Now they have to scramble to catch up.”

After keeping coronavirus infections near zero for much of the pandemic, the Chinese-ruled city has seen the number of cases per capita surpass peaks recorded in pandemic-ravaged countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom. On Monday, authorities reported more than 34,000 cases, up from just over 100 in early February, and 87 deaths. Corpse storage facilities in hospitals and public morgues have reached capacity, resulting in the storage of bodies in beds or trolleys in the hallways.

Hong Kong has vowed to stick to a policy of eliminating COVID to align with mainland China, which prioritizes containing outbreaks at all costs. The city’s current restrictions, including the closure of businesses such as bars, beauty salons and gyms, are the most draconian since the pandemic began in 2020.

The rules have heightened fears of separation among many families, with many fleeing the city ahead of the mass testing program and the construction of tens of thousands of isolation centers.

The international financial hub, long dubbed ‘Asia’s global city’, is experiencing an exodus of talent as some of the world’s toughest border controls approach the two-year mark with no end in sight.

Lam, who inspected an isolation center built in mainland China on Monday, said the team raced against time to “create a miracle” in the city’s construction industry.

The Tsing Yi facility, located in the northwest of the city, would provide about 3,900 rooms for infected people with mild or no symptoms and others who need to self-isolate, she said.

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