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Where are the masks? Japan gov't struggles in bid to boost supplies

A notice at a drugstore reads, "Masks out of stock," in Naka Ward in the city of Hiroshima, on April 17, 2020. (Mainichi/Tatsuya Fujii)

TOKYO -- The Japanese government is still struggling to combat supply shortages of face masks amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, more than three months after the items began to vanish from store shelves in the country. Fierce global competition to secure sufficient mask supplies is also driving up their prices.

"We have no idea where the masks have gone," lamented a senior official at the prime minister's office in Tokyo.

It was in late January that the government first became aware of the need to address the mask shortages. Three months on, the low stock continues, leading many people to realize masks are no longer disposable. According to a survey conducted on April 18 and 19 by the Mainichi Shimbun, 28% of respondents said they were using their masks only once and then throwing them away, while 45% said they were reusing masks by washing or disinfecting them. Another 15% said they were handcrafting masks.

As the nationwide mask shortage drags on, public frustrations are being vented at the government, which has heretofore assured the public of boosting mask production and securing their stable supply. People are left wondering what the government has been doing all this time about its own pledges.

The initial signs of a mask scarcity emerged in late January. As novel coronavirus infections rapidly spread in China, the import of Chinese-made masks to Japan was temporarily halted. This was a major blow as China is a main supplier of masks to Japan, which relies on imports for some 80% of its masks. As people rushed to shops to snap up and stockpile masks, drugstores and other outlets soon ran out of supplies. Even in normal years, some 600 million masks per month are in demand in Japan during the peak hay fever season.

In early February, there was an air of optimism within the government, with one senior official saying, "If the mask supply tops 100 million a week, the shortage would be resolved." Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also showed confidence at a press conference on Feb. 29, stating, "In March, we will be able to secure a supply well over the demand in normal years."

On Jan. 28, the government asked domestic mask manufacturers to boost production. It also incorporated into an emergency economic package unveiled on Feb. 13 a new subsidy system for companies introducing mask production equipment. In response, Sharp Corp. and other non-mask makers eventually began to churn out the items.

However, reports of abnormal circumstances arrived one after another around that time, including that "The 900 million masks in stock were gone in the last week of January," and that "Some 1.9 billion masks were purchased in a mere 1 1/2 months since the beginning of the year."

As a result of the output increase, the supply of masks has been on a steady rise, from around 300 million in January to over 400 million in February, 600 million in March and more than 700 million in April. The ratio of Japanese-made masks also shot up, from just 20% before the viral outbreak in Japan to 60-70%. However, even though the government has secured supplies well over the volume needed to address the peak demand in average years, mask shortages still remain unresolved.

"If a person uses one mask each day, that'll total 3 billion masks per month. There's no way we can catch up with that demand even by boosting production," said an official with the prime minister's office.

In March, the government began to turn its eyes to cloth masks at the same time calling for increasing the production of single-use masks. On March 12, the government started distributing over 20 million cloth masks that it purchased to nursing care homes, facilities for people with disabilities, day care centers and other facilities across the country. It also decided to add elementary, junior high and high schools and pregnant women to the list of recipients. In a bid to effectively organize the mask handouts, from identifying the demand to procuring and distributing them, a "mask team" was set up by assembling employees from the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications.

The idea of distributing masks to all households was raised by those close to Prime Minister Abe, and he announced the plan at a meeting of the government task force for tackling the novel coronavirus on April 1.

"These cloth masks, one of which I'm wearing today, can be reused by washing them with detergent. I believe these masks are extremely effective in addressing the rapidly expanding demand (for masks)," Abe said. According to a source close to the government, the prime minister washes his cloth masks himself using hot water and detergent.

Officials were apparently confident about the cloth mask handout plan, with one individual close to the prime minister's office bragging about their advantages: "They can be distributed quickly just by posting them in mailboxes." However, many members of the general public apparently felt there was something amiss about the handout plan, in which the Abe government announced that "a pair of masks per residential address" will be distributed, when even the specific amount of cash benefits for residents had yet to be decided. Some even said they thought it was an "April Fool's joke." When the mask handout budget was revealed to total 46.6 billion yen on April 8, people also began to call the plan's cost-effectiveness into question.

In an opinion poll carried out by the Mainichi Shimbun on April 18 and 19, some 68% of respondents said they did not appreciate the mask handouts, well over the 26% who said they were in favor of the program. On April 17, the government began distributing a total of 130 million cloth masks to homes, starting with households in Tokyo, but that hasn't led to alleviate mask shortages at stores. Furthermore, it emerged that at least 7,000 masks for distribution to pregnant women had an array of problems, including stains and the discovery of bugs and hair. This prompted the recalling of undelivered masks for regular households, pushing back the delivery to all households.

Nonetheless, the government has no intention of suspending the program, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga saying, "This is a necessary measure to dispel public anxiety over mask shortages." The government anticipates an increased supply of unwoven fabric masks in May and beyond, and there is an estimate that the supply capacity will get close to 900 million masks per month in May.

(Japanese original by Shinichi Akiyama, Political News Department)

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