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Viral hysteria: Three armed men steals hundreds of toilet rolls in Hong Kong

February 17, 2020 | 16:57

Three armed robbers who stole hundreds of toilet rolls in Hong Kong (China) were being hunted by police on Monday (Feb 17), in a city hit by a wave of panic-buying in recent days with supermarket shelves emptied of crucial goods such as toilet paper, hand sanitiser, rice and pasta.

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A man wearing a facemask moves packages of toilet paper that are sold at a store in Tsuen Wan district of Hong Kong on Feb 8, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Philip Fong)

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

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

Videos obtained by AFP showed long queues of frantic shoppers packing trolleys with multiple packets of toilet rolls, with some arguments breaking out.

The footage - and photos of shelves emptied of toilet rolls - sparked a call from the government for the public to halt panic buying.

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 a truck driver was held up early 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 (US$130)," a police spokesman told AFP.

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.

The 2003 outbreak of the SARS virus killed 299 people in Hong Kong and left lasting psychological scars on the densely populated city.

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 re-iterated that there were ample stocks of toilet roll./.