How a Pharmacy Handles Mask Hoarders and Coronavirus Fears


HONG KONG — “It’s like World War III,” said May Tang, an employee at the Kit Pharm Dispensary Ltd. in Hong Kong.

As panic over the coronavirus outbreak has swept across the city, residents have taken to waiting in line for hours to buy face masks, disinfectant and even toilet paper from places like Kit Pharm in North Point.

And Ms. Tang, a friendly woman with tinted hair, has witnessed the hysteria first hand.

“You could say we’re tired,” she said of the spreading outbreak and its consequences. “Not many people can experience so many things at once. It will be written down in history.”

After enduring months of political unrest and a waning economy — and with the deadly SARS outbreak from 2003 still looming in people’s memory — jittery customers concerned about the spread of the coronavirus have started to hoard goods from pharmacies around town, leading to dwindling supplies and increased costs.

Before the New Year, a box of 50 masks was 50 Hong Kong dollars, about $6.50. Now the price has doubled — if you can find masks at all.

When Ms. Tang first noticed the growing demand, she said she tried to order high-quality masks from German and British suppliers. But with months to go before a potential shipment would arrive, the pharmacy has been forced to rely on whatever is available.

  • Updated Feb. 10, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is possibly transmitted through the air. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • How worried should I be?
      While the virus is a serious public health concern, the risk to most people outside China remains very low, and seasonal flu is a more immediate threat.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      World Health Organization officials have praised China’s aggressive response to the virus by closing transportation, schools and markets. This week, a team of experts from the W.H.O. arrived in Beijing to offer assistance.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The United States and Australia are temporarily denying entry to noncitizens who recently traveled to China and several airlines have canceled flights.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.

Even she has had trouble getting her hands on masks, she said.

On a recent trip to Taiwan, she bought 200 masks for herself and her family. Her friends have flown to Korea and Japan just to hunt for more boxes.

“Every minute, it gets more expensive,” she said of the price increases she has seen online. “It’s too scary.”

Unlike chain stores, Kit Pharm does not carry a large stock of goods, and what little it puts on the shelves now sells out in a matter of minutes, said Ms. Tang. The pharmacy, a small family-owned business, usually relies on prescription sales. Customers now seem to come in to buy things like bleach, disinfectant and hand sanitizer as frequently as they do to fill their prescriptions, Ms. Tang said.

Like many others in the city, Ms. Tang said she thinks the government should have acted sooner to contain the virus. “If they had done things earlier, Hong Kong would be in an even better place,” she said.

As of Tuesday, the virus has sickened 61 people and killed one man in Hong Kong. Protests have erupted outside quarantine sites and the government has closed most of its border crossings with mainland China.

Right now, Ms. Tang said, the entire city is alert, but she is hopeful the number of new coronavirus cases will fall. Winter this year has been warmer than usual and more people have been wearing masks, which she says is a good thing.

“Watching people die, it hurts our hearts,” she said. “I hope no more people are lost.”

For now, part of her job at Kit Pharm has become learning how to calm nervous customers desperately looking for more supplies.

“We tell them, ‘Don’t be so anxious, just buy enough for you. Don’t hoard too much,’” she said. Pharmacists at Kit Pharm also encourage customers who get a fever or a cold to be tested for the virus. But not everyone listens, she said.

Ms. Tang’s inevitable contact with people who are ill has started to worry her. It did not help when she learned that someone living in a building near her own, in Siu Sai Wan, had been infected by the virus.

Her father, 89, who lives with her, barely leaves home these days, not even to play mahjong, she said.

After she returns home from work, Ms. Tang is careful to wash her hands and wipe down surfaces using disinfectant. “When I get home, I spray, spray spray,” she said.

She used to take the bus to the pharmacy. “Now, I don’t dare,” she said. Instead, she brings her lunch so that she can afford to take a taxi.


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