Ministers Chan Chun Sing speaking to the media after the Technical Briefing on Wuhan Coronavirus at MCI building on 30 Jan. Photo: Najeer Yusof/TODAY

The current coronavirus outbreak has triggered a shortage of surgical masks around the globe and people scramble to stock up on their personal supplies as a precautionary measure against the virus.

Following news of the increasing number of infected cases of Covid-19 in China and the spread of the virus into Singapore led to a mad dash to pharmacies and supply stores as people started to panic-buy masks and hand sanitizers just days after the first case was detected in the country.

Naturally, the empty shelves and uncertainty over when retailers would get new supplies of masks concerned the public who were trying to stay safe amid the outbreak and increasing number of cases being detected in Singapore.

At the end of January, after stores ran out of stock of masks, the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) released five million masks from the national stockpile to retailers to help them replenish their stocks. However, even those were snapped up in a matter of hours.

In efforts to bring calm, Minister of Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing said at a press conference on 30 January that the country has enough masks for residents if the supply is managed “appropriately”.

Mr Chan said, “Whether we have sufficient masks or not will depend on three factors: How much we have in our physical stockpile, our usage rate, and our resupply quantum and frequency.”

“We will have enough if we manage these three factors appropriately,” he asserted.

The same reassurance was given by the Ministry of Health the week before when it said that there were enough N95 masks in Singapore for the public.

The thing is, the reassurance that government bodies have offered in the public is at odds with what Mr Chan said in a meeting with local business leaders just last week.

In the meeting, organised by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry (SCCCI), Mr Chan had said that no amount of masks will be adequate if everyone in Singapore starts using it every day.

Mr Chan said that if Singapore follows Hong Kong’s leader where political leaders appear at events wearing a mask, that would cause panic among the people and lead to a severe shortage of masks as everyone would use it “like tissue paper”.

Mr Chan explained, “If every Singaporean uses a surgical mask, one day we will burn five million masks, if not more. Since we don’t know how long we got to fight this war and the supply line has [been] cut already, [we must] conserve the surgical mask to make sure our medical system can still work.”

During the session, Mr Chan spoke about the government’s move to hand out four masks to each of Singapore’s 1.37 million households earlier this month for them to use in case they needed one but are unable to purchase a mask at retailers. Mr Chan explained that the masks were only meant to be used by those who were not feeling well or needed to go to the hospital.

However, the minister pointed out that distributing those five million masks to every household in Singapore meant dipping into and further reducing the country’s “limited stock count”.

So in public, the government is reassuring people that it has sufficient supply of masks in its stockpile for the entire country to use during this difficult and fearful time if managed appropriate, but in a closed-door meeting, Mr Chan’s words signal the opposite.

To wear or not to wear?

The government has been cautioning the public to stay calm and avoid using masks every day, saying that it is only necessary to don a mask if they are feeling unwell.

When distributing the five million masks to every household in Singapore, the government explained that it was not meant to be used every day. Instead, the four masks were given out so that people would have access to them when needed.

In that same press conference on 30 January, Minister for National Development Lawrence Wong advised the public not to wear a mask if they are healthy, adding that they will be better protected by washing their hands regularly with soap and water.

The same was also echoed by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in a Facebook post on the same day where he said “there is no need to wear a mask if we are well”.

Also, the Health Ministry placed a prominent advertisement on Straits Times on 31 January, telling everyone not to use masks if one is well.

Snaking queue at Lucky Plaza of people waiting to buy face masks (Photo: Terry Xu)

However, in contrary to the government’s advice, four medical practitioners in Singapore co-signed a letter advising people to wear face masks when they leave home to control the spread of Covid-19.

In the viral letter entitled “Health advisory from senior medical practitioners to Singaporeans”, the doctors pointed out that “as this virus is said to be milder, infected people with no symptoms could transmit the virus to others silently. A certain percentage will developing deadly disease” and warned that temperature screening works less well to identify those infected.

“As they mingle freely and unmasked, more and more people could be infected daily without even knowing it.”, said the practitioners.

The letter went on, “We are advising everyone to wear a mask always when leaving home. If one faces a person and both parties are masked, it is considerably safer, constituting a 2 barrier protection. It may not possible for everyone to get a new surgical mask everyday. We need to find creative solutions. Some people have purchased washable cloth masks, sewed them, constructed them with suitable paper, or tied a scarf to the face. These measures are better than no mask at all.”

Mask shortages around the world

The issue of mask shortages is a concern for many nations right now, especially in places close to China—the country hardest hit by the outbreak—such as Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.

In Macau, the government announced that it would be releasing 20 million masks to its citizens via a rationing system that allows each person to buy a maximum of 10 surgical masks every 10 days at designated pharmacies.

This was announced on 22 January, just as Macau confirmed its first case.

About three weeks later, on 14 February, the Macau Secretary for Social Affairs and Culture Ao Ieong Iu announced that the region would be setting up a production line for masks through a local team. She said, “We hope in the fourth round of the government’s mask rationing, the new production line will be able to provide masks to Macau residents.”

In Hong Kong, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor revealed on 8 February that the government’s internal reserve of masks were down to just one month’s supply, said South China Morning Post. Earlier it was revealed that the government has only 12 million masks left.

Ms Lam announced that the city government has bought 48 million masks and received 17 million more from China in efforts to address the shortage caused by panic over the deadly coronavirus outbreak. Unfortunately, she said that the supplies may not arrive in time.

Ms Lam said, “This shortage is not a unique problem in Hong Kong, but the whole world, [though] especially in our region,” Lam said, pleading for the public’s understanding over the resupply delays.

She added that more staff and volunteers in the correctional service’s factory would increase Hong Kong’s supply from 1.8 million a month to 2.5 million. The extra 700,000 masks will be channelled to outsourced cleaners for free.

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