TOKYO -- The Japanese government's plan to distribute an additional 80 million cloth masks to care homes as part of attempts to stem the spread of the new coronavirus has been met with strong criticism from opposition parties, who have described it as a "waste of taxpayers' money."
The disagreement started on July 28 during a hearing session at the National Diet attended by four of the opposition parties including the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan (CDP). There, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare disclosed that it intends to start distributing the additional cloth masks to care homes on July 30.
According to the government, of the 80 million additional masks it expects to deliver, 22 million had been ordered by the end of May, and orders for the remaining 58 million were passed to a total of 14 mask makers and other businesses on June 22. An investigation by members of the CDP found that the contract costs with the 14 firms had come to a cumulative amount of around 8.2 billion yen (about $78 million). Although the manufacturing of the cloth masks is complete, more than 10 billion yen will have to be added to post the masks to care homes, among other extra expenses.
At the hearing, the CDP's Hiroshi Ogushi said, "As of June 22, many masks were available in the streets. Does the government really need to use the budget to procure and deliver 80 million cloth masks?" Michiyoshi Yunoki, a politician with no party affiliation, also pushed the government for answers, saying, "Front-line workers aren't asking for cloth masks now. Everyone is using nonwoven fabric masks."
A health ministry official answering the questions said, "With an increased spread of infections in the near future in mind, we decided there may still be demand for the cloth masks." But when asked questions such as, "With urban areas stocked with nonwoven fabric masks, what basis has this decision been made on?" the representative struggled to respond at times.
Under the Abe administration's cloth mask program, until now around 60 million cloth masks have already been distributed to care homes, estimated to be enough for both care givers and receivers to have three masks each. If the additional 80 million are sent out, each person would have seven masks.
At a press conference on July 28, Chairman of the Japanese Communist Party Kazuo Shii indicated his doubts about the plan to increase the number of cloth masks sent out by the government, saying, "What are most needed on the front lines are (high performance) N95 masks. If they do it now, they should send these masks to people working in medicine and nursing care. Isn't it support that matches the front-line needs that is really required?"
(Japanese original by Kenta Miyahara, Political News Department)