Korean government works to counter mask, hygiene product shortage

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Korean government works to counter mask, hygiene product shortage


From left: A person picks up a free mask placed at City Hall Station on Jan. 29; A bottle of hand sanitizer is fixed by tape at Jamsil Station; A bottle of hand sanitizer is attached to a rope at Jegidong Station in central Seoul on Monday. [YONHAP, SEOUL METRO, SCREEN CAPTURE FROM SBS NEWS]

Korean transit officials are chaining up hand sanitizer bottles in subway stations. The government is cracking down on merchants hoarding hygiene products for resale. The military is rationing soldiers’ face masks.

As the Wuhan coronavirus continues to spread throughout the world, skyrocketing demand for hygiene products in Korea is affecting more than just residents.

Free masks provided in the city’s subway stations have been rapidly disappearing, the Seoul Metropolitan Government said, while entire bottles of hand sanitizer are being stolen.

“Once we place a thousand face masks at subway stations in the morning, they’re cleared out in 30 minutes,” Kim Jung-il, a public health official with the metropolitan government, said Monday. “We wish people would be conscious enough to take away one piece per head, but that’s not how the situation is going.”

As of last weekend, the city government had an emergency reserve of six million face masks.

“Some people are taking off with entire bottles,” Kim said. “There was a similar incident in the Seoul City Complex building’s basement floor. We need to see a more mature degree of citizenship here.”

Countermeasures have already been put into effect. At Line 1’s Jegidong Station in central Seoul, officials had used a rope to affix a sanitizer bottle to the counter. On Line 2’s Jamsil Station, southern Seoul, a bottle had been taped down. Metal chains were also in use in several locations. Subway stations stopped piling up free masks in bundles, with subway employees instead handing them out only if riders ask for them in person.

The Korean military is working to secure more masks for its soldiers. According to the Ministry of National Defense, a total of 19.5 million fine dust masks were supposed to be distributed to soldiers seasonally, when fine particle levels reach their peak.

But with the coronavirus outbreak, all masks will be distributed at once, with each soldier receiving 50 masks for the entire year. Last year, each soldier received only 18 masks.

As of Monday, 7.29 million masks were sent to several Army bases in the country. An additional supply of one million will come in on Feb. 17. The ministry estimates that if it does succeed in securing the ordered masks in advance, the soldiers will have enough to withstand the epidemic for two more months.

The mask shortage is also raising concerns for the U.S. military based in Korea. Camp Humphreys, located in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, wrote in a Sunday Facebook post that the commissary had “temporarily exhausted” supplies of mask and sanitizers but “expects an emergency delivery this week.”

Earlier, a surge of Chinese merchants and students were buying up hundreds of masks at convenience stores in Korea. Local face mask manufacturers have responded by boosting production to the maximum, running facilities 24 hours per day.

But the ramp-up has proven insufficient to meet the demand hike, with consumers still complaining of difficulties finding masks both in brick-and-mortar stores and online.

Wholesalers, meanwhile, have been inundating face mask manufacturers with requests for millions of additional face masks. Merchants are in some cases offering mask makers twice the normal price per unit.

“The government and local media are telling us to wear masks for prevention, but it’s simply too difficult to get your hands on one,” said a 34-year-old office worker who declined to provide his full name.

“On e-commerce sites, they’re mostly sold out, and for the ones that are being sold, the price is ridiculous. A box of face masks used to be worth around 10,000 to 20,000 won ($8.43 to $16.85). I’ve seen some being sold for 100,000 won.”

Some of the country’s largest e-commerce sites, like Coupang, Gmarket and 11st, are struggling to deliver face masks in time. Supermarket chain Emart has been selling 30,000 to 35,000 face masks per day.

Homeplus on Saturday started limiting customers to 30 face masks.

The most likely brick-and-mortar stores left with face masks are convenience stores and pharmacies in residential areas outside of city centers. But the odds of securing a mask are slimmer in neighborhoods popular for tourists, as well as in Suwon and Bucheon in Gyeonggi, which were both visited by recently confirmed coronavirus patients.

The Korean government said it is to monitor Chinese merchants that purchase filtered masks by the bundle in Korea to resell them in China. Regional governments, including Gyeonggi and Busan, on Tuesday announced large-scale crackdowns on people hoarding face masks and sanitizers.

People caught stockpiling masks to resell them for a profit can be sentenced under Korean law to either more than two years in prison or a fine of up to 50 million won. Korean police say they will also be on the lookout for hand sanitizer hoarders.

Governments worldwide are working to find solutions to the mask shortage. Some are enforcing a limit on the number of masks available for purchase per person, while India and Taiwan have banned mask exports. Xiamen, a city on China’s southeast coast in Fujian Province, has started a lottery on its official WeChat account to determine which residents can be allowed to buy masks in designated stores.

Yonhap reported Tuesday evening that the Korean government had sent 1.5 million face masks to Wuhan, the Chinese city that has been at the center of the epidemic.

The government last week announced plans to provide at least 2 million masks to the city, which remains on lockdown as Chinese officials struggle to contain the virus.

BY LEE ESTHER, LEE KEUN-PYUNG, LEE MIN-JUNG [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]
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