The other thing to fear…

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The other thing to fear…


Chinese passengers on the subway in Wuhan, China, in January. [YONHAP]

The author is the head of the welfare and administration team of the JoongAng Ilbo.

In 2004, unsuspecting pedestrians in Montreal, Canada, Gloucester, Britain and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia fell into manholes. As if it was orchestrated, manhole covers around the world started to disappear. In Chicago, as many as 150 covers went missing.

As China’s demand increased, scrap metal prices surged, and crooks around the world began to steal manhole covers. They were sold to junk dealers, and the final destination was China. James Kynge’s “China Shakes the World: The Rise of a Hungry Nation” discusses the manhole cover incident. With the largest population in the world — and as the factory and market of the world — the example is often used to illustrate how influential China can be.

China, a black hole of goods, is shaking the world once again. As the new coronavirus outbreak originating from China is spreading around the world, a “mask war” has begun. As Chinese people are bulk-buying face masks from other countries, masks are in shortage. Some countries, including Russia and Iran, are even banning the export of masks.

What fanned the shortage of face masks is market cornering. As the demand for masks increases fast, some sellers are using the opportunity to rake in excessive profits. So the production volume is increasing, but masks are selling as if they are evaporating. The Korean government has issued an emergency supply control order, requiring buyers to report the unit price and volume. Some claim that masks should be designated a “reserve item” along with rice and petroleum.

On Feb. 7, the World Health Organization (WHO) attributed a shortage and rapid price increase in face masks to a widespread and inappropriate use of them other than treating the patients. The WHO warned that hygiene products and protective equipment should be provided to the medical staff and patients first.

It is a natural human instinct to wear a face mask to reduce one’s risk. While it deserves criticism, the greed to make profit by stocking up on products may be a desire anyone has. What shakes the world may not be China, but could be the excessive anxiety and desire among us.

JoongAng Ilbo, Feb. 10, Page 29
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