President Moon Jae-in said in a Cabinet meeting Tuesday that he is “sorry” for a shortage of face masks caused by the spread of the COVID-19 corona virus disease.
He had earlier said on Feb. 25 that Korea’s mask production capacity was sufficient to meet demand. But the short supply at designated sales spots has not eased, because of an explosive growth of demand despite the government releasing about 5 million masks a day. Many wait for hours to buy only a few masks, with most others going back empty-handed.
This is happening because the government did not secure masks sufficiently before telling people not to worry. Government officials did not grasp the supply situation precisely and made a rough estimate of capacity and demand. People cannot avoid feeling not only disappointed, but also deceived.
The root cause of the shortage of masks is Moon’s failure to stem the influx of the infectious disease early and thoroughly, despite recommendations from experts and many people. As a result, the virus diffusion has spiraled out of control, making Korea second only to China in terms of the number of infected patients. However, the president has not offered a single word of apology so far.
He also said that the problem of mask shortage should be shared equally while supply remains short, and effectively urged people to economize on masks. The president and high-ranking officials must be the first to do so.
On the day when Moon said “sorry” for the shortage of masks, a senior official of the public health authorities said that the best way to prevent infections is to wash hands and keep a distance from people, adding that the US does not advise its people to wear masks as a way to avoid catching COVID-19.
At first, the authorities said that people should wear masks, but now they are refraining people from doing so. If wearing a mask is not advised, the president and ministers should set an example.
Moon urged ministers to seek understanding and cooperation from people, but it is doubtful whether this is the right way to do so.
Further, the US is not the same as Korea. We are a much smaller country, and here, many commute by public transportation. Naturally, wearing masks will help prevent virus transmission.
On the same day, Moon’s policy chief Kim Sang-jo said though Korea is one of the world’s largest mask producers in terms of per capita output, the domestic demand needs to be reduced. The reason why people are desperate now to buy masks is for their own safety. It is the government’s duty to protect people’s lives.
If people do not wear masks or buy them, the shortage of masks will be eased for sure. But if they go around without wearing masks, they will be exposed to a higher risk of being infected. This is not the way to solve problems, but will make them bigger.
Also, the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety has revised guidelines on the use of masks to advise healthy people to use and also reuse cloth masks after washing them, instead of more protective KF94 masks.
Until a few days ago, it advised people to use KF94 masks certified by the ministry rather than cloth masks and was against the reuse of masks.
Then, it did an about-turn as the shortage of masks is getting out of control and people’s grievances are mounting. When the virus is spreading at a breakneck speed, the public health authorities are lowering the protection level of masks. This is absurd.
The government has frequently vowed it will be thoroughly prepared, but considering the current situation of mask shortage, people cannot but worry whether it is well prepared to beat the virus spread.
Masks are not the only problem. Protective clothing for doctors and nurses will reportedly fall short soon in Daegu, hit hardest by the virus. This is a cause of bigger concern. If the government does not act quickly and proactively, it will be in trouble.