Being creative may solve face mask shortages during the coronavirus outbreak

Following the recent lockdowns in New York City and San Francisco, my thoughts immediately went to friends who are living there. When I asked them if they needed me to send face masks from China, to my surprise some had beat me to and already ordered masks from Taobao and JD.com, two of the largest Chinese e-commerce platforms. The friend in New York is expecting to receive masks from JD this week, while the one in San Francisco just ordered 200 masks.

This is a reverse situation from just two months ago when I was traveling in Europe and my family and friends in China were urging me to buy masks for them from overseas. There was a shortage in China because the virus struck in the middle of the Lunar New Year, when most of the factories were closed and everyone had returned to their hometowns.

Admit it! The shortage of masks is a global issue. The story of some Chinese cleaning out pharmacies in foreign cities may have been true at the beginning of the outbreak. I confess that I’ve spent 200 dollars buying masks (3M masks are costful). But that’s because six people had asked me to get them supplies. Panic can make us do irrational things. That’s why in addition to masks, we have also seen shortages of rice, pasta and, oddly, toilet paper in some cities in Europe, Australia, the United States and beyond.  

Now let’s talk about the solution to mask shortages. Although the virus originated in China, China will still be in the best position to help solve the world’s shortages. After all, it is the world’s largest manufacturer and exporter. 

China has already solved the shortage problems at home, and will soon be able to shift its focus to exporting large quantities of masks globally. Well, Jack Ma has already donated a million masks to Japan and a million masks and 500K COVID-19 test kits to America. They were all made in China, folks. 

How was China able to solve its own mask shortages so quickly? When the survival instinct kicks in we can be creative. It’s an open secret that many Chinese industrial manufacturers started making masks. Take the automobile and electric vehicle giant BYD for example, which opened a large mask making facility capable of manufacturing up to 5 million masks a day. Iphone assembler Foxconn started making masks for their workers in February. 

Moreover, hundreds of SMEs in manufacturing and medical devices in southeast China, especially Zhejiang province, are making millions of certified masks every day. They are the solution to the world’s mask shortages. I have no doubt about it.  

If you log on to Taobao website to look for masks, there are plenty of choices for subsidized, surgical-style masks which are sold between 15-20 dollars (RMB 100-150) for a set of 50. Their manufacturers are these newly mushroomed SMEs which originally had no relation with the mask-making industry at all. 

My personal favorite story was of a year-old Hangzhou-based AI chip startup called Xinzhi Kongneng. According to a report by Chinese tech media 36 Kr this week, the company overcame a temporary funding shortage by pivoting to producing masks, and have managed to sell 10 million RMB in one month. Its founder Chen Li said selling masks is not their ultimate business plan but they can do it as long as it makes profits and feeds their long-term R&D in AI chip development. 

Mask pads I’ve ordered (Photo by Wu Nan)

After all, it’s a simple economic rule to supply what the market needs. Other examples of creativity in mask making include the production of thin nonwoven-cloth pads as a supplement to put inside masks, allowing the masks to be easily reused by changing the pad as needed. Making the pads can be done quicker and at a lower cost than producing masks, with the pads sold as low as 1 RMB per sheet.

Laugh all you want! There are jokes spreading which compare the pads to wearing Maxi Pads on your faces. But we need to think about the long run. Would you throw away half a dollar every time you used a new face mask? That could be as much 182.5 dollars a year if you use a mask once per day. To tell you the truth, I ordered some of these pads to give it a try after some friends recommended it. 

I know we haven’t talked about whether we should wear masks during the outbreak. I have very mixed feelings about it. There’s no direct evidence to prove that wearing a mask will stop you from getting infected by coronavirus. But I believe, as it is advised during flu season, you shall wear a mask to lower the risks of getting the flu. After all, the number of global infection cases have now grown into the 6-digits, and are expanding at a speed that can endanger us all. By any means protect yourself.

I dismiss any statements saying that only health workers need masks, because these are simply justifications for mask shortages. Call me a chicken but I sleep soundly knowing that my family and friends have enough masks to use.

And I’m outraged with anyone who calls COVID-19 the “Chinese virus.” It pains me to hear from my Chinese friends in the Netherlands and England, who had “coronavirus” screamed in their faces and were pressured not to wear masks. In fact, racism against Asians is rising if you take a look at Twitter. 

I’ve always worn masks in public places with limited ventilation and with large crowds. In fact, Asian countries have become accustomed to wearing masks in the last 4 or 5 years, when air pollution became an issue. It does not mean they are sick when they wear masks. We should protect ourselves as much as we can. I swear I’ll continue to wear masks and I will send masks to friends wherever and whenever they are in such need.  

And at last, to the global politicians, please face your incompetence and find a solution to beating the virus!

(Top photo by Juraj Varga from Pixabay)

Wu Nan
Wu Nan

Nan is the Founder and Editor in Chief of AllTechAsia. She is an award-winning journalist with honors from Foreign Press Association in New York and Hong Kong Journalists Association. For years she worked for top-notch media outlets including South China Morning Post and the Wall Street Journal. She co-founded the NetEase Annual Economist Conference (NAEC), a leading economic forum in China. She holds a master's degree in Journalism at U.C. Berkeley and is a 2012 Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Write to her: nan[at]alltechasia.com

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