The couple have a dozen boxes of them at home, and started their stockpile as news reports began to pour in about a deadly, pneumonia-like coronavirus that first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
As well as the standard 3-ply and 4-ply masks, Ho has a box of 3M-made N95s, which have been increasingly expensive and difficult to find in Hong Kong since the Wuhan outbreak started grabbing headlines. N95 masks are typically used on construction sites, but they were commonly worn by Hongkongers during the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS).
“They’re very hard to breathe in,” says Ho, 35. “But this is just in case things get worse.”
Many in Hong Kong are similarly apprehensive and the streets and subway trains are thronged with masked crowds-ironically, given that the authorities sought to ban face masks at public gatherings in October to deter participation in the anti-government protests that have raged across the city for months.
The heightened concern comes as the number of confirmed cases of the deadly coronavirus in mainland China climbed to 830 on Friday with at least 26 deaths. The virus has spread to Japan, Thailand, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam and the United States.
There have been two confirmed cases in Hong Kong and public health officials have assured residents that there is no evidence of a widespread outbreak.
But it’s easy to see why locals are nervous: they’ve been here before. SARS infected close to 2,000 people in 2003, casting a pall over the city for six months. Years later, relics of that outbreak have remained part of daily life in Hong Kong, such as the ubiquitous use of hand sanitizer (unknown before SARS), or the introduction in restaurants of two pairs of chopsticks at each place setting (one pair to eat with, the other pair to dip into communal dishes when you want to pick up a morsel). At karaoke bars, customers put disposable protective coverings over their microphones to guard against germs. And medical masks, rarely seen outside of hospitals before SARS, are now part of everyday life, even when there isn’t a new coronavirus to contend with.
SARS hit Hong Kong hard, killing almost 300 in the city out of over 700 deaths worldwide. The crisis also battered the local economy, pushing unemployment to a record high and sending property prices-some of the most expensive in the world-plummeting.
During those months, the normally bustling city turned into a ghost town as residents minimized any unnecessary movement beyond the confines of their homes. Restaurants and hotels stood empty. People stopped greeting each other with a kiss on the cheekmany were even too nervous to shake hands.
Ho was a university student in Hong Kong when SARS broke out. She recalls her classes being canceled and not seeing her friends on weeks on end. “I stayed home most of the time,” she says. “Everyone was too scared to go out.”
Change before you have to.