China virus spooks OFWs in Hong Kong, jacks up face mask prices

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MANILA — The price of face masks quadrupled in Hong Kong, a top destination for Filipino migrant workers, as a deadly respiratory virus from China spawned alarm, a community leader said Monday. 

The previously unknown coronavirus has infected over 2,700 people in China, left 80 dead, and was confirmed in around a dozen countries including as far away as the US, authorities said. 

In Hong Kong, home to some 230,000 Filipinos, the price of regular face masks rose to about HKD200 from HKD50, said Eman Villanueva, chairperson of activist group Bayan's chapter there. 

"Medyo naaalarma rin po (we are a bit alarmed)," he said of the Filipino workers in Hong Kong, who are mostly domestic workers. 

The new pathogen shared a genetic similarity with SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, which killed hundreds across mainland China and Hong Kong in 2002-2003.

In its previous outbreak, SARS turned Hong Kong into a "ghost town" where locals avoided public places even during weekdays, said Villanueva, who has been a domestic worker there for nearly 3 decades. 

"Ngayon naman po, parang halos normal pa rin pero maingat ang mga tao, naka-face mask," he said. 

"Obserbasyon nga namin, kung ikaw ay nasa public place… kung medyo mapaubo ka ng kaunti, ang mga tao ay nakatingin sa 'yo at ang dating parang gusto kang ilabas," he added. 

(The situation here still appears normal but people are cautious, they're wearing face masks. We also observed that if you're in a public place and cough even a bit, others will look at you as if they want to take you outside.) 

Authorities have yet to advise OFWs to stay away from their usual hangouts during their rest days, but have pushed back the resumption of classes to Feb. 17 from the Chinese New Year break, said Villanueva. 

Hong Kong has declared the novel coronavirus a public "emergency" — the city's highest warning tier — and on Saturday announced ramped-up measures to reduce the risk of further infections.

Among these was a plan to turn a newly built but currently empty public housing block in Fanling into a quarantine facility.

Meanwhile in Singapore, which earlier confirmed 4 coronavirus cases, officials urged OFWs to monitor "almost daily" advisories from health officials and avoid crowded areas, said Consul Adrian Bryan Candolada. 

Manila's health department advises the public to frequently wash hands and hydrate well to avoid getting sick. With a report from Agence France-Presse 

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