Elderly people, young children allowed to buy masks by proxy

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Elderly people, young children allowed to buy masks by proxy

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People form a long line in front of a pharmacy in Jeonju, North Jeolla, on Sunday morning, waiting for a chance to purchase protective face masks, which were limited to two per person, per week. The government announced late last week it will allow young children and elderly people to buy their masks via a proxy. [YONHAP]

The government on Sunday announced it will ease restrictions on people buying publicly supplied face masks for young children and elderly people, in response to public outcry over a series of new restrictions intended to stabilize supplies.

People will now be able to pick up masks at pharmacies for children born in 2010 or later, as well as people born in 1940 or earlier. The changes will allow proxy purchases for an estimated 4.58 million children across the country, and for 1.91 million elderly people.

The aggressive spread of the new coronavirus in recent weeks has caused demand for face masks to skyrocket, and the government recently began purchasing domestic mask supplies to ensure a more stable distribution to consumers. Korean residents and foreigners with the requisite paperwork are each allowed to purchase two masks per week from pharmacies.

President Moon Jae-in ordered the changes to proxy-buying rules on Friday, following complaints that young children and elderly people were being forced to wait in line in the cold.

The proxy purchases also must conform to recently announced restrictions limiting purchases based on a person’s date of birth. People are assigned a day of the week corresponding to the last digit in their birth year, meaning that a parent buying masks for a child may have to wait in line on two different weekdays: once for their own pair of masks, and on another day for their child.

“Basically, a person can’t purchase masks for others even as a proxy in a single visit while ignoring the rotation system,” Vice Finance Minister Kim Yong-beom said during a Sunday press briefing.

The proxy purchases also require the buyer to carry a certificate verifying their identity and their relation to the person for whom they are buying the masks.

“[The government] decided to expand parts of the proxy purchase to make buying masks for children and the elderly more convenient,” Kim said.

When the government initially announced limitations on publicly supplied masks on Thursday, Kim said proxy purchases would only be allowed for people with disabilities.

During Sunday’s briefing, Kim added that the government is looking into solutions to help foreigners purchase publicly distributed masks. Foreigners currently must show both their alien registration cards and their National Health Insurance Service certificate.

“We have been told that in a short time, requests [from foreigners] for health insurance certificates have increased significantly,” Kim said.

The requirements to show identifying paperwork were intended to keep people from double-dipping on their mask allowance by visiting multiple locations. But this leaves short-term visa holders and those living in Korea illegally with far fewer options to obtain masks.

Since last July, foreigners staying in Korea for more than six months have been required to enroll in the national health insurance program. Coverage costs a minimum of 110,000 won ($92) per month.

Previously, foreigners staying in the country for 90 days or more could qualify for national insurance benefits. The tightened restrictions enacted last year were intended to prevent foreigners from manipulating the system by getting the national insurance program to cover medical treatment, then leaving the country without paying into the system.

Even for those with steady employment, the 110,000 won insurance payment per month has been a burden for many foreigners, many of whom provide unskilled labor. Foreigners’ average monthly income was 1.47 million won in 2017, roughly two-thirds of Koreans’ average monthly earnings, according to a report provided by Democratic Party Rep. Jin Sun-mee, based on reports from the National Health Insurance Service.

But an even bigger problem may be the thousands of immigrants illegally residing in Korea, who aren’t registered and have little to no access to mask retailers.

As of 2019, there were more than 2.4 million foreigners living in Korea, or 4 percent of the total population, according to government statistics. The number of illegal aliens in Korea is estimated at 370,000, about 15 percent of the overall number of foreigners.

And the number of illegal residents has risen rapidly, according to the Justice Ministry. The number of illegal aliens was estimated at 200,000 in 2016, growing to more than 300,000 by 2018.

Those without any official registration can only obtain masks through private retailers. But since the government began distributing masks through pharmacies, post offices and Hanaro Mart locations, it has been buying up 80 percent of the daily supply, leaving far fewer masks to be distributed through private retail channels.

Illegal residents can still purchase masks at Hanaro Mart and post offices, but they could be prevented from buying at those locations as early as next week, when they are also expected to implement the pharmacies’ system.

Government-supplied retailers supplied 7.26 million masks on Friday, the first day the per-person limits were in effect.

Of that total, 5.71 million masks, or 78 percent, have been distributed to pharmacies.

Another 190,000 masks were distributed through Hanaro Mart, while 140,000 were delivered to post offices. Medical centers received 900,000 masks.

The government said it would continue working to keep supplies steady, announcing Thursday that it had signed contracts with 98.7 percent of the country’s 131 manufacturers.

It also announced incentives to manufacturers that increase production by working overtime and on weekends.

“There’s a need to incentivize mask manufacturers that expand their production, as rising labor costs are inevitable due to overtime and weekend pay,” Kim, the vice finance minister, said.

He said the government will pay an additional 50 won for each mask produced in excess of the previous week’s daily average. The government estimates the incentives to lead to an additional 1.2 million masks produced each week.

The same per-unit incentive will be applied to all masks produced during the weekends - Saturdays and Sundays, which the government estimates will result in an additional 12 million masks each week.

The military will also contribute to the effort, with soldiers being deployed to logistics centers to repackage the masks.

Masks are currently packaged in varying quantities, requiring pharmacists to open them and redistribute them based on the two-masks-per-person rule. The soldiers will be taking on that role in an effort to ease the burden on pharmacists, while also reducing the risk that the masks could be contaminated by a pharmacist who has unknowingly contracted the coronavirus.

BY LEE HO-JEONG [lee.hojeong@joongang.co.kr]

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