Hong Kong police bust toilet paper gang amid panic-buying frenzy

In a photo taken on Jan 7, 2020, shoppers with face masks stock up on toilet paper rolls at a supermarket in Hong Kong. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (AFP, REUTERS) - Hong Kong police said on Monday (Feb 17) they have caught two of the gang of three who stole hundreds of toilet rolls, in a city wracked by shortages caused by coronavirus panic buying.

Toilet rolls have become hot property in the densely packed business hub, despite government assurances that supplies remain unaffected by the virus outbreak.

Supermarkets have found themselves unable to restock quickly enough, leading to sometimes-lengthy queues and shelves stripped bare within moments of opening.

Alongside toilet rolls, there has been a run on staples like rice and pasta as well as hand sanitiser and other cleaning items.

Police said they have recovered all of the stolen toilet paper, worth about HK$1,700 (S$304). They were still hunting for a third thief. No other details were given.

Earlier, a truck driver was held up early on Monday by three men outside a supermarket in Mong Kok, a working class district with a history of "triad" organised crime gangs.

"A delivery man was threatened by three knife-wielding men who took toilet paper worth more than HK$1,000," a police spokesman told AFP.

Footage from Now TV showed police investigators standing around multiple crates of toilet rolls outside a Wellcome supermarket. One of the crates was only half stacked.

Hong Kongers reacted with a mixture of bafflement and merriment to the heist.

One lady passing by the scene of the crime who was interviewed by local TV station iCable quipped: "I'd steal face masks, but not toilet roll."

The city, which has 57 confirmed coronavirus cases, is currently experiencing a genuine shortage of face masks.

The hysteria that has swept through Hong Kong since the coronavirus outbreak exploded on mainland China is partly fuelled by the city's tragic recent history of confronting a deadly disease.

In 2003, 299 Hong Kongers died of severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), an outbreak that began on the mainland but was initially covered up by Beijing, a decision that left a lasting legacy of distrust towards the authorities on public health issues.

This year's coronavirus outbreak also comes at a time when the city's pro-Beijing leadership boasts historic low approval ratings after refusing to bow to months of angry pro-democracy protests last year.

The authorities have blamed false online rumours for the panic buying and say supplies of food and household goods remain stable.

But the panic buying has itself created shortages in one of the world's most densely populated cities where supermarkets and pharmacies have limited floor space.

Photos posted online have shown some people proudly stuffing their cramped city apartments with packets of hoarded toilet rolls.

On Sunday, the head of the city's Consumer Council warned people not to stockpile toilet rolls in their flats as they were prone to mould in the notoriously humid climate. She also reiterated that there were ample stocks of toilet roll.

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