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[Newsmaker] Government tries damage control following face mask shortage

President Moon Jae-in (center) and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon (right) visit Seongdong District Health Center on Wednesday. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in (center) and Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon (right) visit Seongdong District Health Center on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

With face masks running out fast as the new China-borne virus spreads, the government is cracking down on hoarding and illicit trading of hygiene goods in high demand.

Vice Health Minister Kim Gang-lip announced Wednesday a joint clampdown on market cornering and price gouging of face masks and hand sanitizers.

A response team comprising 180 officials of the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, Fair Trade Commission, National Tax Service and National Police Agency will monitor unfair trading practices such as price fixing and the smuggling of goods overseas, the vice minister said. Perpetrators will face a jail term of up to two years or a fine of up to 50 million won ($41,950).

According to e-commerce platform Tmon, demand for face masks and hygiene products has surged markedly in the past month. On Jan. 28, six of the top 10 most searched words on the platform were hygiene-related goods, in contrast with search results a month ago, when discount coupons, mobile gadgets and travel deals ranked on top.

Another popular e-commerce site Coupang said it was penalizing sellers who marked up prices of sought-after items due to the virus outbreak, following complaints from its users.

On the same day, the government sent hygiene supplies worth 360 million to Chongqing, a Chinese city adjacent to Wuhan, Hubei province -- the outbreak’s epicenter. The Moon Jae-in administration said last month it would send 6 billion won worth commodities including face masks, protective suits and hand sanitizers to China as part of relief support efforts.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party criticized the move during a Jan. 31 meeting, saying, the administration was remiss on its duties to protect its own citizens.

“The Moon administration decision is putting the safety of citizens second,” the party’s spokesperson Kim Sung-won said. “Shortages are reported at schools, hospitals, pharmacies across the country. The situation at home clearly cannot afford it.”

Meanwhile, medical institutions have expressed concerns over the shortage of protective gear.

Doctor of internal medicine Choi Seung-jun, who serves as vice president of the Seoul Medical Association’s Yongsan branch, told The Korea Herald that face masks and other medical hygiene items are becoming increasingly hard to find online or elsewhere.

“We are currently out of hand sanitizers and are quickly using up the few masks we have,” said Choi, who runs a clinic in Yongsan’s northern neighborhood of Huam-dong.

“The medical association is working with state health centers to distribute masks, sanitizers and other hygiene supplies at the clinics throughout the district -- just like during the 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak,” he said.

Severance Hospital Communication Officer Kim Hwi-yoon told The Korea Herald the hospital was trying to secure sufficient stocks of face masks and hand sanitizers, saying “shortages were evident” if the situation persisted.

“Doctors and medical staff need protection from infections,” he said. “We are not short of supplies for the time being, at least for about weeks, but we can’t say they are enough to cover over 10,000 employees at the hospital in the long run.”

Health authorities including the Korean Medical Association and Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise wearing masks to prevent infections, along with hand-washing.

Drug Safety Ministry official Yoon Ji-sang told The Korea Herald that the ministry was working to increase production of face masks to meet demand.

“The ministry is regularly checking on face mask manufacturers, to extend their operation hours if possible, to prevent scarcity,” he said.

By Kim Arin (