Prices of masks have doubled or tripled in Hong Kong over the past month. Photo: RTHK

My aunty, who is working as a gardener in Hong Kong, asked me if I had some face-masks for her.

Perhaps seeing thousands of Hong Kong people, mostly elderly, queuing up for masks at designated locations, she has also become aware that wearing a mask is important to prevent yourself from getting or transmitting the coronavirus.

However, as face-masks have suddenly become an important accessory, she is not the only person searching for masks to wear when they leave home these days.

Last week, I  was interviewed by some Nepalese community-media people in Hong Kong about the virus outbreak and its associated risk factors. After the interview was posted online, a number of people echoed the fear, anxiety and confusion in regard to the virus, which has recently dominated the headlines of Asian print and non-print media. Some of the questions viewers posed were common queries for all people at the moment. 

 “Mina Gurung: नमस्कार टिकाबहिनी, मलाइ पनि केहि सोधनु मन लाग्यो बहिनी सुगर हुनेलाइ यो रोग छिटो लागछ रे, साच्चैहो?” (I heard that those who diagnosed with diabetes have highly likely to get this virus than other, is it true?) 

Lila Gurung: कोरोनाभाईसको श्रोत चाही के खुल्यो? कृपया जानकारी दिनुभए आभवारी हुने थिए। (What are the sources of the coronavirus? I would be grateful for your information.)

सारुकेटाएग्नेस: भने पछि नेपालि पसल्ति र्आउने मास्क्चै राम्रो परेन छ्. (How is the quality of masks in Nepalese shops in Hong Kong?)

Loken Rai: How long can we use the N95 mask? 

Krishna Senehang: Aakha ko aasu jharne thau bata pani virus pasnu sakcha re yasko k upaya cha Deb sir kura raknu hos “ (Is it possible to get infected with coronavirus through a tear duct? And how can we prevent it?)

These questions and concerns reflect people’s concerns about the outbreak, which is one the scariest global health issues in recent times. Tens of thousands of people have so far been infected, mostly in China’s Hubei province, and the death toll has just passed 2,000 people.

Although the number of patients who have recovered offers hope, discourse about the local outbreak has prompted people to stock up on basic daily necessities such as rice, toilet paper, masks or even gloves – leaving suppliers scrambling to meet the demand.

Some people, however, have sought to grab the opportunity to try to increase profits by importing boxes of masks from Nepal, an acquaintance told me, and selling them to fearful people in Hong Kong.

Many industries are either closed or have temporarily downsized their workforce due to the virus scare. While white-collar workers are luckier to have the “work from home” option, many blue-collar workers have either been laid-off or told to go on unpaid leave, which has left them scratching their heads and constantly checking their balance-books.

However, such joblessness has not been wasted by the linguistically challenged Nepalese residents at the time of this societal crisis. People are making use of every available means and resources, including their social media links, to update each other on a range of questions pertaining to the Covid-19 disease.

Nepalese community organizations such as the Hong Kong Nepalese Federation and the Non-Resident Nepali Association are using their connections with local NGOs and political groups to collect masks and distribute them to members of our community.  

Some Nepalese shopkeepers and individuals are also importing masks from Nepal and selling them, mostly, to Nepalese residents in Hong Kong. One of my acquaintances told me he made a profit of HK$10,000 (US$1,287) by selling 25,000 masks in less than a week.

As wearing a mask is just one of many other preventive measures against the coronavirus, a responsible government should outline a list of measures people can take to prevent them catching the disease.

Additional resources need to be utilized to provide needed advice and services to people at higher risk of getting the infection. The government should also keep a watchful eye out for unscrupulous market manipulators, as well as maintaining a steady supply of basic necessities and try to stop unnecessary price hikes on certain goods. 

This is the critical moment in history, so people should forget their political ideology and join hands with the government and other stakeholders to help each other.   

The author, Tika Rana is a registered nurse (Nepal) and a former coordinator of the Non-resident Nepalese Association Hong Kong. She has an RN MSc (qualified in Infection Control) from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.