Shortage of masks, surplus of fear
Annie Borzola stepped out of a drug store on Bambang Street in Manila’s Sta. Cruz District with 10 disposable face masks wrapped in plastic.
“The coronavirus really scares me,” Borzola said, adding that wearing face masks was the easiest preventive measure one could resort to, following the Department of Health’s (DOH) confirmation of the country’s first case of the 2019 novel coronavirus (nCoV).
The Makati resident had scoured drug stores in the area and in nearby Taguig for masks, but failed to find any.
Borzola finally joined hundreds of people who trooped to the medical supply stores in Sta. Cruz, Manila, on Friday to stock up on face masks, the sense of urgency stoked by fears of the virus that has so far killed 213 all over the world, and infected nearly 10,000 others.
Like MedTech student Kent Talosig, a 51-year-old Quezon City resident said she was buying masks for her entire family and found the P40 price tag for each 250 GSM mask too steep. But she had been to 10 stores in Bambang “and they’ve all run out of masks,” she said.
DTI: Shortage temporary
The Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), however, downplayed the supply shortage, with Secretary Ramon Lopez saying that supply becomes a problem “only if there is a sudden increase in demand, and stores didn’t stock up.”
Lopez added: “But [the shortage] should be temporary because the supply of a manufactured product can easily be increased, unlike if it were an agricultural product.”
The DTI said it was relying on the private sector to address the depleted stocks of face masks in the market.
“We advised [retailers] to order in much bigger quantities,” Lopez said.
Despite the spike in the price of face masks and charges of “profiteering” from disgruntled consumers, the DTI official said the problem was “the shortage of supply and not the price,” for which, Lopez said, the agency had “intensified monitoring” of retail outlets.
Gordon explanationIn Malacañang, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo said the Philippine National Police should raid stores hoarding the much-needed item, as hoarding was unlawful.
Also on Friday, Senator and Philippine Red Cross (PRC) chair Richard Gordon clarified that the PRC did not purchase the $1.4-million worth of face masks that the agency sent to China, which has been grappling with thousands of coronavirus cases since December 2019.
The face masks were actually sent to China by a Taiwanese manufacturer based in Mariveles, Bataan province, Gordon said, adding that he just facilitated Customs approval for the shipment, which was immediately sent to China via chartered plane.
“Nobody donated the masks to us, we just facilitated [their transport]. The PRC is an international humanitarian organization after all,” he said.
Gordon was roundly criticized on social media for announcing on Jan. 26 that the PRC had sent $1.4-million worth of face masks to China amid a severe shortage of the item locally because of increased demand following Taal volcano’s eruption.
“What’s wrong with extending assistance? Do they want us to ignore [China] … just because they could not buy face masks? We [were] just trying to help,” the senator said.
Scant supply after Taal
On Bambang Street, customers waited patiently in line even if most medical supply stores have posted signs that read: “No surgical masks, no N95,” referring to the sturdier and more expensive face masks said to give better protection against germs, viruses and other impurities.
Lyn Billones, who sells medical scrubs and other equipment, said that the store had run out of face masks since Jan. 13, a day after Taal Volcano spewed ash over nearby Batangas and Cavite towns.
“Before the volcano erupted, we had about 250 boxes and each box contained 50 masks. All the N95 and surgical masks were sold and now, we have a shortage of supply,” she said.
Like many stores in Bambang, Billones said they get some of their stocks of masks from China, where the 2019- nCoV virus originated.
“We don’t even know when the next delivery is coming because there’s been no feedback from our suppliers,” she added.
Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko Moreno” Domagoso, meanwhile, said that authorities were monitoring the retail price of masks around the city.
Based on a memorandum from the DOH, surgical masks should retail between P1 and P8 each, while N95 masks cost between P45 and P105.
“We guarantee that we will monitor [stores] and if we [find] anybody or anyone [overpricing the masks], we will cancel their business permit and file cases against [them],” Domagoso said in a Facebook live broadcast.
In Navotas City, Mayor Toby Tiangco said that while the city had run out of face masks, its Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office was intensifying its information dissemination campaign on the 2019 nCoV by launching hotline 8281-1111, for queries on the virus.
Panelo said manufacturers should produce more masks to address the shortage.
Asked if Malacañang would be distributing face masks especially to vulnerable sectors, the Palace official said this could only be done if there was enough supply of the commodity. —With reports from Marlon Ramos and Julie M. Aurelio
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