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Hong Kong’s leader has appealed for calm after residents stripped supermarket shelves bare amid fears of compulsory mass COVID-19 testing and a rumoured city-wide lockdown.

Local media reported compulsory COVID testing would start after March 17, prompting fears that people would be forced to isolate and families with members testing positive would be separated.

Under a so-called “dynamic zero COVID” policy, the Chinese territory is imposing some of the toughest pandemic restrictions on Earth, even as the rest of the world learns to live with the virus.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday appealed to the public “not to fall prey to rumours to avoid unnecessary fears being stirred,” while insisting the supply of food and goods remains normal, according to a government statement.

“There is no need for members of the public to worry, they should stay vigilant and pay attention to the information disseminated by the government so as to avoid being misled by rumours.”

Isabella Ng Fung-sheung, associate head of the Department of Asian and Policy Studies at the Education University of Hong Kong, described the city’s pandemic strategy as a “disaster” that was fuelling fear and anxiety among the community.

“Ordinary citizens are extremely worried,” Ng told Al Jazeera. “People are frantically seizing all food available in the supermarkets.”

Ng said an earlier announcement that the school summer holidays would be moved to March and April had also caused “chaos amongst schools, teachers, parents and students,” while strict travel and quarantine rules were “scaring people and investors off”.

“Schools have to grapple on their own to decide how to rearrange the curriculum,” Ng said.

City-wide lockdown

Officials are planning to test the city’s 7.4 million people three times over nine days, with the government recommending that people stay home during the period, the Sing Tao Daily newspaper reported, citing unidentified sources.

Exemptions would be made for those who buy food, seek medical treatment and maintain societal operations. Hong Kong’s stock market would continue to operate, the paper said.

Lam had previously said she was not considering a city-wide lockdown.

An expat resident told Al Jazeera he had spent the last four days trying to get groceries through a popular supermarket’s online delivery service without success.

“Last night we went to ParKnShop, lines were 10-15 people deep at each register, supplies of fresh meat were limited to non-existent,” the resident said, requesting anonymity due to concern over the city’s sweeping national security law, which has been used to quash most dissent in the city. “Shelves seemed decently stocked on most other items.”

“I think the government operated on the assumption that ‘zero COVID’ was always going to work and did not develop any contingency plans in case it didn’t,” the resident said. “Now they are left scrambling to catch up.”

After keeping coronavirus infections near zero for much of the pandemic, the Chinese-ruled city has seen per capita cases surge above the peaks experienced in pandemic-ravaged countries such as the United States and United Kingdom. On Monday, authorities reported more than 34,000 cases, up from just over 100 at the start of February, and 87 deaths. Facilities for storing dead bodies at hospitals and public mortuaries have reached maximum capacity, resulting in bodies being stored in beds or trolleys in hallways.

Hong Kong has promised to stick with a COVID elimination policy to align with mainland China, which prioritises curbing outbreaks at all cost. The city’s current restrictions, including closing businesses such as bars, beauty salons and gyms, are the most draconian since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

The rules have exacerbated separation fears among many families, with many fleeing the city ahead of the mass testing scheme and the building of tens of thousands of isolation centres.

The international financial centre, long branded as “Asia’s World City,” has been experiencing an exodus of talent as some of the world’s toughest border controls near the two-year mark with no end in sight.

Lam, who inspected a mainland Chinese-built isolation centre on Monday, said the team had raced against the clock to “create a miracle” in the city’s construction industry.

The Tsing Yi facility, located in the northwest of the city, would provide about 3,900 rooms for infected people with mild or no symptoms and others who need to isolate, she said.

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