Time for fresh thinking on face mask supply

February 12, 2020 16:57
A file picture shows people queuing up in Hong Kong to buy face masks to protect themselves from the China coronavirus. Authorities have come under fire after they failed to ensure sufficient supplies. Photo: Reuters

As the Wuhan pneumonia epidemic rages, Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the Communicable Disease Branch of Hong Kong's Centre for Health Protection (CHP), has admitted that the current tracking strategy adopted by the authorities is inadequate in stopping the coronavirus from spreading in the community.

In case a large number of confirmed infections occur in Hong Kong in the coming days, the expert doesn't rule out the possibility that the deadly virus could "take root" in the territory.

For now, it appears the only thing the citizens can do to reduce the risk of getting exposed to the virus is to wear facial masks at all times, because you never know when you may bump into a "super spreader" around the next street corner.

Yet the problem is, face masks are extremely hard to come by these days, and the government is virtually at its wits' end when it comes to finding new supply of this madly sought-after commodity.

So what can we do to save ourselves?

On Monday, Executive Councilor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee suggested that the government was preparing emergency legislation law to regulate the import, distribution and retail of surgical masks in order to crack down on price-hikes.

Nevertheless, on Monday night, a government spokesman said the administration “currently does not have any plans to mandatorily control the supply and prices of surgical masks through legislation, because this could be counterproductive, rather than addressing the problem at source, i.e. inadequate supply.”

Speaking to media on Tuesday morning before an Executive Council meeting, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor reiterated that the administration currently has no plans to mandatorily control the supply, allocation and prices of surgical masks.

The government will make an all-out effort to procure protective gear, including masks, globally, and offer full cooperation to boost local production of the items, Lam said.

While doubts persist as to whether imposing controls on the trade of masks can really work, what can be said with certainty is that authorities won't be able to get to the root of the problem unless they bear some simple facts in mind.

For one, it takes time to pass legislation. Also, what's the point of controlling the price of face masks by law when they aren't even available on the market?

Given the situation, if the government is really sincere in helping the citizens, here are three things that it can do: first, it must ditch the bureaucratic practice of lowest-price tendering and make every effort to procure surgical masks on the global market at all costs.

Second, the government should follow Ip’s thinking and try to legislate against raising mask prices. And third, authorities should make an all-out effort to assist private businesses in setting up face mask production facilities locally.

If worst comes to the worst, the government may need to consider providing raw materials to the citizens so that they can put together masks themselves at home.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Feb 11

Translation by Alan Lee with additional reporting

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Hong Kong Economic Journal