A shopper walks past empty supermarket shelves in Hong Kong on Feb. 12, 2020.
Geovien So—SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images
February 17, 2020

Police in Hong Kong said they have arrested two armed robbers who stole 600 rolls of toilet paper outside a supermarket—a sign of just how scarce the basic necessity has become amid panic buying due to the coronavirus outbreak.

According to local media, a truck driver was delivering the toilet paper rolls to a supermarket in the Mong Kok neighborhood at approximately 5 a.m. About an hour later, three knife-wielding men in their 20s wearing caps and face masks showed up. One of them threatened the driver with two knives as the other two loaded about 50 packs of toilet paper—or 600 rolls—onto a cart.

The toilet paper was later found stashed in a nearby guesthouse, where police arrested two suspects. One is still at large.

Along with medical face masks and cleaning products, necessities such as toilet paper, rice, canned food and other household staples have become heavily sought after in Hong Kong in the wake of the outbreak of coronavirus, officially named COVID-19.

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Earlier this month, shoppers emptied store shelves of toilet paper following online rumors that its supplies could run out due to the virus outbreak forcing a slowdown of factories in mainland China.

There are 57 patients diagnosed with the coronavirus in Hong Kong. The city was hard-hit by the 2002-2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), which has left many residents anxious of a mass COVID-19 outbreak.

Although the government has refuted the rumors and leading supermarket chains have clarified that there is no shortage of supply, the hysteria is yet to die down. Around the city, supermarket shelves normally stocked with toilet paper and other household goods lay bare as stores struggle to restock. Instant meals such as cup noodles and canned food are also being bought up in the panic.

Face masks have been in dire shortage since last month, with people forming lines outside drugstores as early as the night before when shops announce they will be selling a limited number of masks the next morning. The city’s leaders have been heavily criticized for not ensuring a sufficient supply of masks, unlike neighboring governments that have been handing out face masks to households.

Hong Kong is not the only place to see signs of panic buying as number of coronavirus cases worldwide increase. After the Singapore government raised its health alert level earlier this month, many took to supermarkets, clearing shelves of toilet paper, noodles, rice and other necessities. Taiwan also saw a toilet paper run after netizens circulated rumors online that production of toilet paper was being curtailed because paper pulp was being used to make face masks instead.

Write to Hillary Leung at hillary.leung@time.com.

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