China is reeling under the outbreak of the coronavirus COVID-19. Neighboring countries are on red alert and have identified a few cases among their own citizens. Fear of the virus has triggered panic buying of face masks in large quantities. This has made the item scarce in many countries.
The hunt for masks
In Hong Kong, a box of 50 masks cost about US$6.50 before the New Year. Today, the prices have more than doubled. Some stores have run out of masks completely. People are hoarding the masks, anticipating that supplies might get cut off in the future. This has made procuring masks an even more challenging task.
May Tang, an employee at the city’s Kit Pharm Dispensary, feels that the situation is like a third World War. “Every minute, it gets more expensive… It’s too scary… Watching people die, it hurts our hearts… I hope no more people are lost… We tell them [customers], ‘Don’t be so anxious, just buy enough for you. Don’t hoard too much,’” she said to The New York Times. On a recent trip to Taiwan, Ms. Tang bought 200 masks for her family.
Meanwhile, there have been allegations that the Hong Kong police have hoarded 64,000 surgical masks and 13,000 N95 respirators. The department hit out at the rumors and said that it only has a limited number of masks that will last for just a few weeks.
In Japan, supplies of the mask are running low. According to San-M Package Co., Ltd., a leading mask manufacturer, they are unable to keep up with the demand despite the fact that their factory is running round the clock. Some companies are apparently facing a shortage of materials to make the masks. A box of masks in Amazon’s Japanese site is said to be selling for as high as US$125.
South Korea has implemented a law that will punish people who hoard face masks. Such criminal acts will now invite up to 50 million won (US$42,000) in fines and two years in jail. Chinese merchants and tourists are apparently buying face masks from South Korea in large quantities. This is causing a shortage in the country. In Taiwan, the government has banned the export of face masks until the end of April. Outbound travelers are prohibited from bringing more than 250 masks.
“The masks affected by the ban include N95 respirator masks, which can filter at least 94 percent of particles, as well as other masks made from textiles. Some online retailers in Taiwan have been purchasing masks in bulk and reselling them to China. Fishing vessels have also been caught loaded down with smuggled masks,” according to Taiwan News.
The COVID-19 infection has now spread in the Middle East, with Iran being the first country from the region to report deaths. “Two elderly people have died due to coronavirus in the city of Qom, south of Tehran… The two victims had suffered acute lung infections due to their infection with the coronavirus,” Alireza Vahabzadeh, an adviser to Iran’s health minister, said to Al Jazeera.
Australia is maintaining a travel ban on Chinese visitors for the fourth straight week. In South Korea, the city of Daegu is said to be facing an “unprecedented crisis” as it has registered the most number of viral infections in the country.
The death toll in China has exceeded 2,500 with almost 80,000 people confirmed to be infected with the coronavirus. The number of new cases being reported from China has dropped. However, this is due to the fact that the government has changed the counting method. The real number of infected people is probably far higher than what Beijing wants the world to know.