The face mask crisis
Mask prices began to jump after the infections from new coronavirus were reported in the county late January. As masks became hard to find, the government sought to appease local jitters by announcing that local manufacturers were capable of producing 8 million pieces a day and warehouse stocks totaled 31.1 million. Deputy Prime Minister Hong Nam-ki assured that mask supplies would be stabilized after early disruptions from panicky hoarding.
The government had erred from the initial stages. How it was so confident about mask supply is mysterious. At the time, infection cases and deaths were multiplying in China, and at home, few ventured out without a mask.
It is not hard to predict the enormous gap in supply and demand, even without doing simple math. Of 51.8 million people in Korea, at least 40 million would need one each day. Even leaving out people confined indoors, 30 million would need masks. To supply 30 million people, 15 million masks would be needed if they reuse one for two days, or 30 million masks if they use a new one each day. Even if 8 million masks are produced, as the government said, that still leaves people 7 million to 22 million short. The stock of 31.1 million masks would run out quickly.
The government, however, remained casual, and the result was disastrous. Long lines formed in front of designated groceries, post offices and other locations, resembling those at pop star concerts or amusement park rides. The president has to issue a public apology.
Anyone could have foreseen the crisis. Only the government was clueless. It should have gone to other countries to import supplies ahead of time. But the government sat on its hands. Did it really believe the crisis would calm down, when the virus was killing so many Chinese people while our border with China remained open?
The government has stumbled at every policy decision — economy, foreign affairs, security, wealth disparity, education, real estate, jobs and energy supply. When it cannot even do simple math on face masks, it can hardly be expected to solve more complicated problems like the economy and foreign affairs.
The government cannot do everything right, but nothing this administration does is consistent. It advises people to avoid crowds and public spaces, and yet it is offering to cut ticket prices to performances and cultural events. It provided free getaway gifts to tourist sites to promote consumption.
In early 2000, Seoul was bombarded with floods. Many had to close their stores because they were inundated. Seoul district offices gave out a maximum of 2 million won ($1,661) to shopkeepers when they showed photos of the damage. The situation is much worse now, with few people dining or going out.
Few government officials seem interested in studying the situation. A shopkeeper said he went to his district office early last year after the drastic jump in the minimum wage. He was told to visit often and give feedback. The government remains too out of touch with the reality.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 9, Page 29