Outrage over mask shortages
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Outrage over mask shortages

Panic buying spurred by first Thai fatality

Customers buy washable facial masks made of fabric at Sampheng market in Bangkok at between 50 and 70 baht apiece. (Photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)
Customers buy washable facial masks made of fabric at Sampheng market in Bangkok at between 50 and 70 baht apiece. (Photo by Pornprom Satrabhaya)

People are crying foul over the shortage of masks amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, triggered by the death of a Thai man who was diagnosed with the Covid-19 virus.

Public complaints grew louder on Monday over the continuing lack of masks on the back of heightened concerns over the spread of Covid-19, which claimed the life of the 35-year-old man on Saturday night -- the first reported death from the virus in the country.

One more infection was reported on Monday, bringing the total number of cases in the country to 43. The new patient was a 22-year-old Thai woman, who worked as a tour guide along with an already infected Thai, a driver for foreign tourists.

The Private Hospital Association also said their medical personnel have been seriously affected by the mask shortage.

The Bangkok Post on Monday conducted a survey of drug stores in Suan Luang, Prawet and Lat Krabang districts, and spoke to pharmacists and owners, who all said their stocks ran out almost a month ago and did not know when fresh supplies would be available again.

"We're out of stock. We sold out of all kinds of face masks and hand sanitisers in the second week of last month," said a pharmacist at a drug store in the Pattanakarn area.

He said the number of people looking for these items at his store has skyrocketed since Thailand reported its first coronavirus death.

People queue to buy hand sanitiser and alcohol at a state-run drugstore at the Department of Medical Services in Nonthaburi as public concerns over the spread of Covid-19 mount. Pattarapong chatpattarasill

"Hundreds of customers visit my shop each day. They keep asking for masks and hand gels, even though I have already put up a sign outside the door. Some have even wanted to 'reserve' them in advance and asked me to contact them once masks and gels are available," he said.

Another pharmacist at a drug store near Suan Luang Rama IX said her pharmacy had also ran out of masks and hand sanitisers weeks ago and that she has not been able to order new stock.

"I've asked my suppliers to send more masks and hand gels to my shop, but they said demand is far outpacing the manufacturers' ability to produce them," she said.

Exploiting the situation, many online shops have started advertising masks at exorbitant prices.

An N-95 protective mask -- which normally retails at between 80-95 baht -- is being sold online for 190-220 baht apiece.

Meanwhile, a simple green-and-blue mask which costs 4 baht at a pharmacy, is being sold online at 15-20 baht each.

The owner of another large pharmacy in the Lat Krabang area said some customers have asked why her pharmacy is all out of masks and gels, when these items are still available online.

"I don't know what to tell them, as I don't know how these online retailers manage to get their hands on these items when we can't," she said.

"Perhaps producers are realising they can make more money selling online than to pharmacies, because pharmacies are subject to controls by the authorities and we can't overcharge customers."

Disappointed people finding local stores are out of masks are starting to blame authorities for the shortages.

Prommet, 29, an office worker who only gave his first name, said while the government has already made masks a price-controlled product with a fixed price of 2.5 baht apiece, fewer people can find them for that price. In reality, most people pay 15-30 baht for each mask.

"It is unacceptable the government has let this mark shortage go on, not to mention the inflated prices. Those at Government House should do better," he said.

He urged the government and related agencies to force manufacturers to increase the production of masks to meet demand.

The government has already tried to assure people that masks are being adequately and fairly distributed nationwide.

The Commerce Ministry, for instance, is imposing penalties on shops and sellers who jack up the prices of masks for a quick profit.

Whichai Phochanakij, director-general of the Internal Trade Department, said the demand for masks has surged fivefold from normal levels.

He said authorities will review their distribution methods because Thai manufacturers only have the capacity to make 1.35 million masks a day.

Mr Whichai also said that raw materials from China have been in short supply and producers have had to import most of them from Indonesia, which consequently raises production costs.

Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit has instructed the department to dispatch 111 mobile outlets to sell the masks directly to people across the country starting from Thursday, said Mr Whichai.

He said 21 mobile outlets will be located in Bangkok and surrounding provinces, while the rest will be in other provinces.

Each mobile outlet will sell about 10,000 masks each day and they will move to various locations so more people will have access to the masks. One person will be able to buy a pack of four masks at 2.5 baht each.

"The outlets' locations will posted on the department's website," he said.

People who find any sellers who sell masks at inflated prices can inform the department at 1569, he noted.

So far, 51 people have been caught selling masks at inflated prices. They are subject to up to seven months in prison and a maximum fine of 140,000 baht, Mr Jurin said.

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