It's been nearly three months since the Covid-19 virus hit Thailand, yet the scarcity of face masks is still a national problem and a disgrace to the government. Whether this scarcity is a by-product of incompetency or ignorance, this problem needs to be solved immediately.
In order to fight the outbreak, the government has many challenges ahead -- ensuring a sufficient supply of medical and treatment products, ranging from ventilators and Covid-19 test kits to hospital beds.
Making medical supplies available was one of the promises Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha made on Wednesday when he announced the invocation of the Emergency Decree, which went into effect from Thursday to April 30.
However, achieving that will remain an uphill task for as long as his government continues struggling to ensure there is a sufficient supply of face masks.
Since January, people have been struggling to find protective gear for themselves.
Face masks along with alcohol-based hand-sanitising products have either run out or are being sold at ridiculous prices. And the government's so-called intervention to have them sold at designated outlets has so far been insufficient.
Both Gen Prayut and Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanavisit have continued to insist that there are enough masks available. Their claims are proved to be wrong time and again.
Everybody has been repeatedly asking: Where have all the masks gone? Then early this month, a Facebook page, Maem Phodam, posted evidence exposing what could have been the hoarding of 200 million face masks by a minister's aide. This accusation should have sent the government and the authorities off on the job of digging deeper and finding out more.
Yet this exposure did little to put the government on high alert.
Later, questions were raised about what appeared to be an unusually high number of masks being exported. The Internal Trade Department responded by saying these masks were copyrighted products produced locally and exported under agreements that local manufacturers have with the Board of Investment. Questions about these huge exports continue to linger.
Even if the department's claim was correct, the government should have intervened. Under the law, the state has the authority to halt the export of products deemed necessary in the event of a national emergency.
And as the government continues sitting idly by, Achariya Ruangrattanapong, a lawyer who works on helping victims of crime, this week revealed evidence of what he claims are shady operations involving officials, some politicians and soldiers. They allegedly hoarded face masks and sanitising products to drive up the prices and resell them to middlemen, who then either retailed them at excessive amounts or exported them.
The authorities should wake up and start investigating to see if these allegations are true and, if they are, they should start netting the big fish. They should also cooperate with a House panel looking into the shortage of face masks.
It is imperative that these protective products are made available as soon as possible.
With the number of infections soaring to 1,045 as of Thursday, people will not just need face masks but also Covid-19 test kits, while patients will need ventilators and hospital beds.
With such scarcity, the government needs to dig deep into its pockets and invest more to contain the virus and provide proper treatment to the infected.