On Friday (28 February), the World Health Organisation (WHO) raised its Covid-19 risk assessment level to ‘very high’ on the global level and warned government around the world not to underestimate the threat.

The coronavirus has so far spread to 59 countries—with Denmark, Estonia, Lithuania, Netherlands, and Nigeria reporting their first cases on 27 February, said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in his opening remarks at the Friday briefing.

“The continued increase in the number of cases, and the number of affected countries over the last few days, are clearly of concern,” Mr Ghebreyesus warned.

However, he added that most cases of Covid-19 can still be traced to known contacts or clusters, with no evidence so far of the virus spreading freely within communities.

“As long as that’s the case, we still have a chance of containing this virus, if robust action is taken to detect cases early, isolate and care for patients and trace contacts,” he explained.

Based on WHO’s latest situation report on 1 March, 1,739 new cases of the virus were confirmed around the world, with 579 of those being in China. That brings the global total to 87,137 confirmed cases. The virus has resulted in 104 deaths outside of China and 2,387 death within China.

WHO risk assessment spurs panic buying around the world

The raising of the global risk assessment by WHO over the weekend has sparked panic buying among consumers in several countries including the United States, New Zealand, and Australia.

Reuters reported on Saturday that there is a “growing sense of urgency” for people to stock up on staples and essentials in preparation for home quarantines in the US.

Quoting Ed Kelly, an analyst at Wells Fargo Securities, Reuters highlighted a research note in which he said that several major retailers in the US including Walmart and Target could stand to see its supply chains hit by the coronavirus, resulting in empty shelves.

“We believe the time to start worrying about the supply chain risk of 2019-nCoV is here,” wrote Kelly. “It’s worth noting that big box players like Target and Walmart could be the first to experience out of stock issues.”

States like Hawaii and Minnesota have seen a spike in stockpiling, spurred on by messages from state health authorities urging residents to stock up on non-perishables, prescription medications and sanitary supplies despite the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advising otherwise, added Reuters.

The Los Angeles Times spoke to the general manager of Costco in Atwater Village in LA Thad Kleszcz who said that he’s noticed an increase of customers over the weekend after US announced its first case of a person dying from the virus.

Mr Kleszcz said, “Antiseptic wipes and Clorox disinfecting wipes are flying out of here. We can’t keep those in stock.”

Retailers like Walgreens, Home Depot, Lowe’s and True Value Hardware are also reporting an increase in sales of masks over the last few weeks, with Home Deport limiting it’s N95 masks to 10 per customer.

On the other side of the world, the New Zealand Herald noted that supermarkets reported an increase in shoppers after the first known case of the virus was confirmed on the island on Friday. Items such as toilet papers and bottled water were quickly selling out.

Similarly in Australia, News.com.au reported that a Sydney North Shore supermarket said that rice, flour and toilet paper were the first to go. The supermarket said they couldn’t keep up with the supplies of goods.

Panic buying in Singapore is “xia suay”, says Minister Chan Chin Sing

This sort of panic buying has not escaped Singapore either. On 7 February, reports were coming in of shelves being emptied out by panicked residents. Photos circulated on social media platforms show shelves of stores being cleared of items. TOC in its visit to the supermarkets at Chua Chu Kang, found members of public stocking up mostly on rice, bread, paper towels, wet tissues/wipes and instant noodles as they are nearly swept clean. This was reported to be the same for all regions around the island.

Later in a meeting with a group of local business leaders organised by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI), Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing, described the behaviour as “xia suay” or “disgraceful”.

Mr Chan said, “We embarrass ourselves, disgraceful, we disgrace ourselves,” adding that the behaviour of panic buying and hoarding essential items by people in Singapore “has long term implications” on the country’s international standing.

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