HONG KONG: It is the most visible symbol of the deadly coronavirus outbreak - the face mask that even China’s president was pictured wearing and is increasingly prized across Asia as worried citizens seek to protect themselves against infection.
But a huge surge in demand, which has led to pharmacies and supermarkets around the world selling out of masks, has sparked a global race to fill the vacuum and exposed a reliance on China-based manufacturers to produce a low-cost item whose worth has soared.
Illustrating the frenzy, a recent bid by one fintech entrepreneur to secure masks for his Hong Kong staff turned into a gun-toting cross-continental logistics battle.
After placing an order for 500,000 from South Africa, Ovidiu Olea was forced to hire an armed escort to transport the shipment to the airport.
“This started as me trying to get masks for my team and escalated very quickly,” he said.
GLOBAL SHORTAGES OF MASKS
Part of the problem is that China is both the centre of the outbreak and responsible for half the world’s mask production. Some factories that closed for the lunar new year were reopened early but it remains a big challenge to buy masks in the country.
“We’ve been out of stock for a long time ... I don’t know where you can find a mask,” said a staff member at Kang Baixin Pharmacy in Beijing, one of five chemists in the capital that said they had sold out.
The shortages stretch to Europe and the US, where some pharmacies display sold-out signs and hardware stores have put a limit on sales of industrial respirators in response to the demand from people who are hoping to send them to family and friends in Asia.
The Premier alliance of 4,000 US hospitals was seeking to diversify its mask suppliers even before the virus because of fears of a China trade war.
“It is going to get pretty ugly ... because China is such a big player,” said Michael Moloney, head of direct sourcing.
Wearing masks in public is mandatory in Chinese cities including Wuhan, where the virus outbreak began, and the commercial capital Shanghai. President Xi Jinping was photographed wearing a surgical mask for the first time last week as he paid a visit to a Beijing hospital.
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, has admitted stocks of masks are insufficient for its needs.
“We call on countries and companies to work with the WHO to ensure fair and rational use of supplies and the rebalancing of the market,” he said this month.
Public health bodies, including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, question whether masks are an effective guard against infection and emphasise the importance instead of regular handwashing.
But demand is unlikely to wane as the number of infections continues to rise.
STEPPING UP PRODUCTION
China will lift daily production from 20 million to 180 million by the end of the month, said the country’s textile commerce association, while Taiwan, another big producer, will increase its own supply to 4 million a day. US company 3M has pledged to raise production in the US, Europe and Asia.
Hong Kong’s HKTVmall ecommerce group has sourced machinery from Taiwan with a view to opening a mask-making factory. The supply of masks has become a huge issue in Hong Kong, whose under-fire leaders have been attacked for not ensuring adequate supplies.
Snaking queues of hopeful buyers are a common sight outside the territory’s chemists. It was only a few months ago, as protests convulsed Hong Kong, that the government went as far as proposing a face mask ban.
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Some companies in China, fed up with waiting, have taken matters into their own hands.
Foxconn, which manufactures Apple’s iPhone, said it would soon produce 2 million masks a day for its China staff. Carmaker BYD is also planning to make its own supply.
Despite such initiatives, experts say there is little hope that the global mask shortage will end soon.
Wong Kee Wei, managing director of Malaysian supplier Safetyware, said: “Although there are masks manufacturers in other countries, the void left by ... China is too big to be filled.”