Thousands queued for free surgical masks at multiple locations in Hong Kong on Monday as the government considered bringing in emergency laws against overcharging, with the city gripped by shortages during the coronavirus outbreak.
Two private companies in Kowloon each promised to hand out 10,000 masks to members of the public on Monday afternoon, drawing crowds of people desperate to protect themselves from the deadly pathogen that originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
Galaxy Engineering Holding said the first 2,000 people who showed up outside its premises in Tai Kok Tsui would be given up to five masks each. A large queue had already formed by noon, extending along Tai Kok Tsui Road, a major thoroughfare in the area.
In Mong Kok, telecoms company HGC Global Communication (HGC) announced masks would be available without charge from 2pm for the first 1,000 people in line.
One resident surnamed Cheung was one of the first waiting outside Galaxy Engineering when he arrived at 8.30am, five hours before the giveaway was due to start.
“[The government] need to do something, like give out more masks,” the 69-year-old man from Cheung Sha Wan said. “I am very worried. I only have about 20 masks left at home.”
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Hong Kong stood at 38 on Monday afternoon. One of those patients died earlier this month. Tens of thousands have been infected worldwide, mostly in mainland China, and the death toll is now above 900.
Dixon, an employee of Galaxy Engineering, did not reveal how the company had obtained the masks. The Post has contacted senior staff at the building management firm for comment.
A watch and jewellery shop in Percival Street, Causeway Bay, was also giving away free masks on Monday.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor admitted on Saturday her administration was running low on masks, with 12 million left, or one month’s supply.
Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, one of the city leader’s advisers, said on Monday the government planned to invoke emergency laws that could regulate the importing and pricing of masks.
Some of those who were in Tai Kok Tsui on Monday doubted the effectiveness of such a measure.
“I think it’s good for the general public, but it won’t so much help the less privileged citizens who wait for free masks,” said a retiree surnamed Fung.
In Mong Kok, HGC did not reveal where the masks would be distributed until soon after midday to avoid overcrowding.
But more than 1,000 people were seen queuing outside the company’s Mong Kok store – two blocks away from where the masks were eventually released.
Among those who queued was 57-year-old retiree Eddy Ng, who came to the area from Hung Hom’s Ka Wai Chuen in a wheelchair hoping he was at the right place.
Ng, who for two decades has been suffering from ankylosing spondylitis, or long-term inflammation of the joints of the spine, said his disability had left him disadvantaged in the rush for the masks.
He had been reusing his for three days, placing tissue on the inside, because his family of three was down to its last five masks.
After getting his hands on 20 of the protective coverings after queuing with his son, he said the government should have invoked emergency laws long ago to regulate mask prices and penalise anyone who hoarded them.
“Even if the government doesn't give away masks, they should've at least given them to those in need first, so that people don't have to engage in wars like they do now,” he said.
Grace Cheung, a public relations officer at HGC, said the company would give away its remaining 40,000 masks to those in need, including the elderly, at a later date. She said it would reconsider the arrangements for distributing the masks.
Lai, a 67-year-old housewife, who also secured 10 masks for her family, said she previously spent HK$140 (US$18) in a pharmacy on five Korean-made masks.
The resident of Wong Tai Sin in eastern Kowloon, said she had no confidence in the government’s efforts to procure masks from overseas and increase local production to meet demand.
“They cannot even buy enough for themselves,” she said. “We can only save ourselves.”
Meanwhile, local councillors on Monday urged foreign governments to help make masks and other supplies available to Hong Kong.
India announced on Sunday it would backtrack on an export ban of surgical masks and gloves that was in force since January 31.
“We fully understand the shortages across countries, but we're seeking help from the outside,” said Christine Fong Kwok-shan, of Sai Kung District Council, who joined other local leaders in campaigning for overseas support.
The group also called on Taiwan to lift its restrictions, after the self-ruled island in January slapped a month-long ban on shipping face masks out of the country.
More from South China Morning Post:
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This article Coronavirus: mask giveaways in Hong Kong draw thousands with infection fear still gripping city first appeared on South China Morning Post