New policy on masks leaves foreign students exposed

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New policy on masks leaves foreign students exposed

The government’s new mask policy, which took effect on Monday, is threatening to leave hundreds of foreign students studying in Korea struggling to source face masks amid the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

In order to prevent a run on face masks, which have become a rare commodity in drugstores nationwide as a result of the virus scare, the government imposed new rules on distribution that mandate that each citizen can only buy two masks per week and only after undergoing identity checks at drugstores.

The rule also applies to foreigners registered with Korea’s National Health Insurance Service, who are required to present their alien registration card to buy face masks, which can be used to tell if they are registered for national health insurance or not.

Yet this rule has created problems for many foreign students legitimately residing in Korea, as many are not registered with the national health insurance system but instead with private insurance services provided by individual schools.

While all foreigners residing in Korea for a period of over 6 months must be registered with the National Health Insurance Service, foreign students are exempt from this requirement until next year.

Foreign students do have alternative sources to buy masks, like Hanaro Mart branches or post offices, but these locations also restrict people from buying more than one mask a day and often run out of stock quickly in densely populated areas.

In Seoul and Gyeonggi, government-distributed masks were only supplied to pharmacies.

These new rules have caused concerns among many foreign students. Choi Kang, a Chinese student studying at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, said he is almost out of the masks that he brought back from China and that he can’t get any more sent to him from home. “I don’t know what to do,” he added.

On online forums used by foreign students in Korea, some complained the new rules were discriminatory. “[Requiring national health insurance registration] effectively is the same as saying foreign students should not wear masks,” wrote one Chinese student.

Schools are likewise concerned that if their foreign student body cannot purchase face masks, these students may be exposed to the virus and become another source of contagion.

A Finance Ministry official in charge of face mask distribution who requested anonymity acknowledged the problems faced by foreigners not registered with the national health insurance system, though he explained the rules were in place to prevent foreign travelers visiting Korea for a brief period from hoarding masks.

In January, when the virus outbreak was rampant in China but had yet to spike in Korea, many Chinese tourists bought masks in bulk to take back home, prompting many Koreans to call upon the government to enforce stronger restrictions on the sale of masks.

Some foreigners in Korea say the government should allow them to buy masks as long as they present an alien registration card, since one must stay in Korea for over 90 days in order to be eligible for such identification.

BY NAMGUNG MIN [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]

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