Since the beginning of February, Kent Cai Mingdong, a native of Ningbo city in eastern China, has been in Indonesia scouring local pharmacies for as many surgical masks as he can buy to send to health care professionals and frontline workers back home, where a chronic shortage of protective gear is exacerbating the battle against the coronavirus outbreak.
So far, Cai has travelled to more than 15 cities and secured at least 200,000 masks, a portion of which he has entrusted to Chinese tourists he found at major airports in Indonesia to carry home. He has arranged for friends across China to pick up the masks at whichever cities the tourists arrived back in.
"I thought Indonesia, with its (large) population, hence a broad base of skilled workers, would have a larger inventory of masks," Cai, the owner of Zhejiang Newway Cultural Development, an educational research and live streaming firm, said from Indonesia.
"The local scramble for masks came later, which means that when I arrived on the 1st of February, there was a window for me to stock up. We went from pharmacy to pharmacy, which was exhausting but more effective. If I had stayed in Ningbo for the last 13 days, it would have been a waste of time. Being out here, I could at least do something and bring some value to the situation."
China's dominance in the global supply chain as a result of competitive pricing has come back to bite the country where it currently hurts the most - in the manufacturing of medical facial masks, a shortage of which is intensifying as the coronavirus continues to spread across the country and around the world.
Demand for masks has surged in recent weeks, exhausting not just China's stockpile, but emptying shelves from Bangkok to Boston. In China, it is now mandatory to wear facial masks in public areas in many cities.
China, which accounts for about half of the world's mask production, is scrambling to snap excess supply from overseas, both through official diplomatic channels, and buyers like Cai.
But doctors and nurses, including those on the frontline in the virus epicentre of Wuhan, still face shortages, especially of N95 respirators that offer better protection.
The novel coronavirus, which has already killed more people than severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) in 2003, is thought to be spread primarily through droplets from coughs and sneezes and contact with infected surfaces.
As a result, the humble facial mask - which does not require sophisticated technology or rare materials to produce - has become a much sought-after commodity in China, where it has even triggered bureaucratic infighting.
The health authority chief of Dali city in southwestern Yunnan province was sacked for illegally appropriating masks earmarked for Chongqing municipality and Huanggang in Hubei province, state media reported. The central government also abruptly shifted the responsibility of managing the nation's mask supply to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), the powerful economic planning agency, from the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) amid a tidal wave of public complaints.
There are no official estimates of the supply gap, but it is clear that demand will continue to exceed whatever can be produced in China in the coming weeks. Across the country, local authorities are telling employers to procure sufficient masks for their employees as a precondition for restarting operations.
Chinese mask makers are currently operating at 76 per cent capacity, which puts daily production at 15.2 million masks based on the industry's reported capacity to produce 20 million pieces a day, Cong Liang, an NDRC official, said at a press conference in Beijing on Tuesday.
Daily demand, however, is estimated to be between 50 and 60 million units during the outbreak, according to Chinese media reports citing mainland mask manufacturers.
China has also only been able to make 200,000 N95 respirators per day because they require more sophisticated technology and materials to produce.
To tackle the shortage, the Chinese government has adopted quasi-wartime rationing for masks to ensure adequate supply to medical staff, as reports of thefts, fakes and home-made masks have increased.
But despite China's world-beating production capacity for masks, the problem has spread to the rest of the globe.
Chinese prices are so low that the world has come to their doors … But people haven't been thinking about whether they can get these products if there was a pandemic in ChinaMike Bowen
"For years, I've predicted that if China gets into trouble with a pandemic or an outbreak, that since they own the world's mask supply, it'll be problematic for other countries," said Mike Bowen, co-founder and vice-president of American mask maker Prestige Ameritech.
"Chinese prices are so low that the world has come to their doors … But people haven't been thinking about whether they can get these products if there was a pandemic in China," said Bowen, who is also the spokesman of the Secure Mask Supply Association, an organisation aimed at ensuring the capacity and readiness of American-made mask supply.
Texas-based Prestige Ameritech made 87 per cent of the masks for the US market in the 1990s, until cheaper Chinese supplies - which now account for half of America's total supply - hit the market, Bowen said.
Now, in an unexpected twist, his company was for the first time shipping masks to China - 1 million pieces over the last two weeks. Bowen added he was in discussions with Hong Kong officials about possibly supplying masks and face shields to the city, which has seen frenzied scenes amid a shortage.
Orders for masks - not just in China and parts of Asia, but also in Europe and the United States - have risen sharply as the outbreak of the coronavirus, which causes the disease called Covid-19, has spread to nearly 30 countries. The outbreak is China's most severe public health crisis since the severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars) epidemic in 2002-2003.
China, which produced 5 billion masks last year, according to official data, has begun increasing imports from around the world. Last week, the Indonesian government said that China had placed "large orders" equating to three months' output volume from the Southeast Asian nation, according to local media reports.
Other Asian manufacturers in South Korea and Vietnam have reportedly complained that China has halted exports of raw materials and equipment for mask production, disrupting production.
There are at least 50 Chinese suppliers of raw materials and equipment for making masks and more than 140 manufacturers of medical protective gear, according to the Centre for Information and Industry Development, the research unit of the MIIT.
Surging demand and government health requirements have pushed many companies to start manufacturing their own masks. Foxconn, the Taiwanese electronics giant which assembles Apple iPhones in China, has begun producing masks for its staff and aims to ramp up production to 2 million pieces a day by the end of the month.
Clothing firm Hongdou Group and carmaker SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile, a joint-venture between US carmaker General Motors and two Chinese partners, have also started producing their own masks.
But despite the scramble for surgical masks, scientists say there is no scientific evidence that wearing one will prevent viral infection.
"The data supporting the use of simple surgical masks by people in the community is very scanty and so we can't say they won't help, but there is really not rigorous data that (show masks) can be an effective preventive measure," said Dr William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.
The data supporting the use of simple surgical masks by people in the community is very scanty and so we can't say they won't help, but there is really not rigorous data that (show masks) can be an effective preventive measureWilliam Schaffner
"(Surgical masks) are not designed to prevent viruses from getting through the masks; they are actually designed for surgeries, to prevent what's in the surgeon's nose or mouth from getting into the surgical field," he said.
Still, Schaffner said wearing a mask could give the individual a sense of control during an outbreak which, as yet, has no available vaccine.
"And that's very important, because whether in Hong Kong, mainland China, or in the US, we do have an epidemic of coronavirus anxiety," he added.
Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). This 60-page all new intelligence report gives you first-hand insights and analysis into the latest industry developments and intelligence about China AI. Get exclusive access to our webinars for continuous learning, and interact with China AI executives in live Q&A. Offer valid until 31 March 2020.
Copyright (c) 2020. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.Artikel Asli