As the spread of the COVID-19 continues, South Korea is facing mask shortages. Even at hospitals, the front line of the war against the infectious virus, only medical staff are provided with masks as there are not enough to go around for everyone. Some doctors and pharmacists at primary care centers and pharmacies go days without replacing the mask. Mask prices have soared to the point where many people cannot afford them even if they find one. And this is now also happening with daily necessities such as bottled water and ramen in cities such as Daegu that have high numbers of confirmed cases.
Such shortages cannot be attributed solely to an increase in domestic demand when an average of 12 million masks are produced everyday in South Korea. The export of masks to China rose 100 fold to 61 million U.S. dollars in January from 6 billion dollars in December last year, and 118 million dollars’ worth of masks have been sold to China this month as of last Thursday. The government knows that some people are sitting on millions of masks to inflate the price while others are selling them illegally but the government has failed to stop it.
A new requirement came into effect on Tuesday as the government urges mask manufacturers to supply at least half of their production to public institutions. However, the inability of the government and local authorities to distribute masks appropriately has only worsened the situation. In Seoul, subway station staff are handing out masks after 700,000 masks, which were available at subway stations free of charge, were gone in just five days. The government and agencies are distributing hundreds of thousands masks to people who are vulnerable to the virus and businesses, but this has not also been effective.
Fears over infectious diseases often stem from anxiety, not the disease itself. This is why containment efforts should include measures to stabilize supplies of daily necessities as well as medical responses because their shortages can cause anxiety. Fighting an epidemic requires public trust and cooperation. Government measures such as self-quarantine would be rendered useless if people had to roam around the city to get basic supplies. It remains unclear when the outbreak will come to an end. As much as excessive worries are unnecessary, there is no doubt that a small mistake can cause the entire society to spiral into a chaos. The government needs to formulate a comprehensive plan that can not only stop the spread of the disease but also prevent the collapse of the socio-economical system.