So that's why we can't get face masks

February 07, 2020 11:28
Hong Kong residents line up to purchase face masks from a makeshift stall after queueing up for hours to get a pre-sales ticket. Photo: AFP

As the community outbreak of the Wuhan coronavirus worsens, many Hongkongers are beginning to doubt whether our government is on top of the situation. Some people are even asking: does it know what it's doing?

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on Tuesday admitted that her administration's efforts to secure sufficient and steady supply of surgical masks have not been successful.

As to be expected, her words triggered even more panic and frustration among local citizens, who have been waiting it out in kilometric queues for hours or even overnight for the chance of obtaining the hard-to-find commodity.

Then came the answer as to why it couldn't get the supplies that everyone in Hong Kong needs.

On Jan. 31, it was learned, the government announced an open tender to buy 57 million surgical masks based on the lowest bid.

What??!! A tender to secure the much-needed supplies? Who are we kidding?

Manufacturers and distributors of face masks anywhere in the world would not bother to participate in such a long, cumbersome procedure to sell us their products because other governments and enterprises are jostling against each other to buy them name the price, money is no object, they'll pay as long as they get the goods.

These are extraordinary times. We can't go about doing things the old way and expect results. We pride ourselves on having a world-class civil service, but it seems some members of our government bureaucracy insist on following hoary rules and procedures even if they don't serve the purpose anymore.

No wonder, Singapore, Taiwan and Macau can assure their citizens of enough supply of masks and other protective equipment amid the health crisis, while Hongkongers are left to fend for themselves, leading to panic and chaos in the streets.

Legislator Charles Peter Mok finds it surreal that our government would insist on paying the lowest price for a product that is much sought after in other parts of the world.

Even Executive Council member Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said the tender was not only very disappointing but also very stupid as she urged the government to reverse its procurement strategy right away.

The Government Logistics Department, which is responsible for the procurement of such things as face masks and other protective gear for public medical workers, said the tender was only aimed at putting more suppliers and manufacturers on the radar screen, and that it was aware of the tight supply of the products and would make direct purchases.

Of course, there is no need to panic. But that's what happens when people feel that they can't rely on their government at crunch time.

Some people even believe that Carrie Lam has been the source of panic in the city. Every time she appears before media to explain her actions and seek to reassure the citizens, it's followed by a run on rice, noodles and toilet rolls in supermarkets.

We recall that just before she became chief executive three years ago, Lam revealed that when she had moved to a new serviced apartment, she had tried to buy loo paper in a convenience store around midnight but failed to get any, and so she had to take a taxi and go back to her former residence at the Peak for the supply.

No wonder our government can't find masks.

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EJ Insight writer