Citizens in virus-stricken Daegu line up to buy face masks early Saturday morning. (Yonhap)
Protective items against the virus have been running short since the outbreak’s onset at the end of January. Prices for face masks with respirator filters have shot up nearly tenfold, despite the government’s repeated vows to resolve the shortage.
Faced with shortages, the government started clamping down on hoarding, price gouging and smuggling of face masks and other goods in high demand from Feb. 5.
A total of 255 police stations under 18 police agencies across the country have set up special teams dedicated to monitoring illicit trading of protective items against the virus.
In a recent crackdown, police in Seoul’s southwestern district of Geumcheon on Saturday caught two men suspected of smuggling face masks out of the country. Police said they found the men moving boxes of some 20,000 face masks by the roadside at 3 a.m.
Authorities introduced additional measures on Tuesday limiting exports of face masks until April 30. The new measures required mask manufacturers to send half of their daily output to public distributors such as the national postal service.
Despite the efforts, health workers as well as citizens continue to report a scarcity of protective equipment.
The Health Ministry in response sent out a notice on Wednesday advising surgical gowns instead of the head-to-toe protective suit when collecting samples from suspected patients for testing.
Met by criticism from doctors and other medical personnel, the ministry explained the measures were intended to cope with lack of protective suits, and to save time getting into and out of the suits to keep up with test demands.
But as at least 22 medical staff have been infected in the most adversely affected Daegu, and about a hundred more quarantined, critics say reducing protection would jeopardize loss of more health workers already desperately short of number.
If the situation persists, citizens will be forced to go without.
A 28-year-old man in Gangnam, who asked to be identified only by his surname Hwang, said he was running out of face masks and struggling to find new ones.
Although the KCDC recommendation is to keep the face masks on when outdoors to protect the wearer and those around, he said he could not stick to it because he didn’t know where to get them.
“All my orders online get cancelled, and pharmacies and other stores have put up the ‘sold out’ sign for as long as I can remember,” he said. “I’m good for now because my company has let people work from home until next week, but after that, I won’t have masks to wear during commute to and from work.”
Amid the worsening outbreak at home, the government is set to aid China with some 6 billion won ($5 million) worth of protective items including face masks, hand sanitizers, disinfectants, protective body suits and goggles.
According to the data the Foreign Ministry submitted to the main opposition party lawmaker Choung Byoung-gug, the government sent 15,000 protective gloves to Liaoning and Jilin provinces as recently as Thursday.
Local governments are also offering aid to China, separately from central government. In early February, Daegu sent 100 million won worth of face masks and medical supplies to China’s Hubei and Henan provinces.
Meanwhile, President Moon Jae-in said Wednesday that the supply of face masks in the country was “sufficient” and that the solution to the problem was informing citizens where they will be able to find the face masks.
Moon said he was “sorry” for the face mask shortage during a meeting with ruling and opposition party leaders at the National Assembly on Friday.
By Kim Arin (email@example.com