- I'm not falling for the panic, sceptic says, others balk at cost, focus on good hygiene practice
- Experts say wearing masks and washing hands are equally important to prevent Covid-19's spread
The head coach of a gym in Sai Ying Pun does not believe wearing a surgical mask will protect him from the deadly coronavirus sweeping China and beyond.
Joshua Meninga, 31, is part of a small but conspicuous minority of people in Hong Kong not covering their faces among the masked masses.
He says he washes his hands and tries not to touch his face to avoid catching Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus that has infected 74 people in Hong Kong, two fatally, as of Monday morning.
His approach is not recommended by doctors who agree masks act as an important safeguard against people touching their mouths and noses even if their effectiveness against airborne germs is disputed.
However, Meninga said his CrossFit Typhoon gym had been busier in the past few weeks with more people needing a break from working at home.
"People are definitely desperate to get out of the house. This is a pretty good outlet for them," said the coach, adding that the gym was vigilant about disinfecting facilities and screening those using them.
Across the city, long queues of residents desperate for masks are a common sight outside pharmacies and supermarkets, with shoppers often bracing cold weather. Many leave empty-handed as demand far outstrips supply.
Those who do get their hands on them often have to pay exorbitant prices, with some retailers selling boxes of 50 masks for as much as HK$400 (US$51) each. The price was HK$50 a box before the outbreak.
Gym-goer Simon Lau Ying-yuen described the situation in the city as chaotic. The 18-year-old said he refused to wear a mask because he had youth on his side.
"I am a little bit worried, like 30 per cent, but I don't think the risk is that high for me," said Lau, who is a student. "I think there is a lot of panic happening right now."
The masks and the panic buying, I'm not falling for itThichachon Jaipakdee
Dr Joseph Tsang Kay-yan, a specialist in infectious diseases, warned people who did not wear a mask that they were putting themselves at risk.
"Wearing masks together with washing their hands with soap or alcohol wipes is equally important because Covid-19 is mainly transmitted through contact as well as droplets," he said.
Tsang said it was dangerous to be in close contact with other people right now without having a mask on, including in gyms.
He pointed to a recent case in Hong Kong, where a woman did not travel anywhere in the 14 days before she fell ill.
"Some cases present mild symptoms without any fever, especially during the early phases or during the incubation period," he said.
"There are quite a number of studies, which say during the incubation period infected patients can transmit the virus to their surroundings, people in close contact.
"So, if you are not wearing a mask, and get in close contact with somebody who has been infected, but who is in the early phases, you have a high chance of getting infected as well."
In watershed advice issued last month as the crisis unfolded, Hong Kong's leading microbiologist Professor Yuen Kwok-yung said social distancing was the "only thing to do" when masks were not available.
He said masks on their own did not offer 100 per cent protection from the virus, but warned those who did not wear them to keep at least six steps away from other people.
Hong Kong's poor struggling to buy essentials during coronavirus epidemic
Earlier this month, Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam ordered government officials not to wear surgical masks except in limited circumstances, to save supplies for medical staff.
However, the approach backfired, as lawmakers on both sides said it would only lead to further panic among the public about mask availability . The Chief Executive's Office later retracted the remarks.
Despite the risks, some people still choose to forgo a mask.
Simon Yeung Chun-kit said he wiped his phone with disinfectant instead.
"I think everyone wearing a mask has caused the whole city to panic," said the 30-year-old consultant, adding he was not worried about getting infected. "If you look at the statistics, the death rate outside China is low."
Four more Hongkongers confirmed with coronavirus, taking total to 74
Nearly 98 per cent of cases worldwide have been recorded in mainland China, where more than 76,000 have been infected, including 2,400 deaths, as of Monday morning.
Other residents pointed to the citywide shortage of masks as a reason people were not wearing them.
"It's not just expensive, you cannot find them anywhere," Thichachon Jaipakdee said. "Although, even if you could I'd still refuse to wear one."
The 25-year-old preschool teacher said she remembered the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) outbreak in 2003, which killed 299 people in Hong Kong.
"We've been washing our hands a lot more and touching fewer things," she said. "But the masks and the panic buying, I'm not falling for it."
Haelim Oh said her company provided her with a mask every day, which she did not always put on.
"I do bring it with me, but I'm not obsessed about wearing it every day," said the 31-year-old who works in customer service for a fashion company.
"I am worried about getting infected, but I'm healthy so I think I'll recover if I do get infected."
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