星期二 , 4 月 7 2020
首頁 / English / HK News / Opinion | Drastic measures needed to address face-mask shortage

Opinion | Drastic measures needed to address face-mask shortage

By Tony Kwok


I read with great interest a news article published on Thursday in China Daily, “Shanghai residents meet the challenge”, on how Shanghai succeeded in controlling the coronavirus crisis. Clearly, the recent transfer of Shanghai’s mayor to Hubei province is a testament to its success, and there is much the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government can learn from Shanghai.

One effective way proved in Shanghai is to set up neighborhood checkpoints to identify potential patients.
I went to the market daily, and have always wondered why the government would not set up temperature checkpoints at its entrance, since the wet market is considered a high-risk area. Manpower should not be a problem, now that many civil servants are working or resting at home!

But I am particularly impressed with the reporter’s interview with an 80-year-old Shanghai resident who said that he had only five face masks left to protect himself and his wife, as all pharmacies in the neighborhood had run out of stock. However, the man said that he was not worried because he “believed the government will resolve the shortage”. Such is the Shanghai residents’ confidence in their city government!

Indeed, Shanghai soon launched a program for residents to buy face masks based on registration and issue of vouchers, which enabled the man to obtain five masks two days later at a local pharmacy. When the shortage of face masks became a worldwide crisis and many countries started taking drastic measures to ensure adequate supply and fair distribution among their citizens, which include many of our neighboring countries — Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and South Korea — the Hong Kong SAR government stood out by its inaction. It owes Hong Kong people an explanation of why they are left to compete with each other for one of the most common consumables.

Hence the government must now take a bold and comprehensive strategy to deal with the face mask shortage crisis. It should address vigorously both the supply and demand sides.

Firstly, the government should not have turned a blind eye to the gross overpricing of face masks when a normal price of HK$50 ($6.40) per box is inflated to several hundred dollars. Yet people would still be lining up overnight just to buy a box, and fights had been known to erupt among the competing buyers. Meanwhile, the Consumer Council is inundated with overpricing complaints. Clearly, no government should tolerate such unscrupulous exploitative business practices, especially during a crisis of severe shortage.

Secondly, the poor and the elderly are pushed to the end of their tethers as they cannot line up for hours, nor can they afford to pay for daily necessities such as the seriously overpriced toilet tissue rolls, which require regular replenishment. And they are the profiled group that needs face masks most due to their generally weaker immune systems. According to a recent survey, 80 percent of the elderly are short of hygiene products for virus protection, and 57.4 percent have masks that would remain effective for less than seven days. They will be in dire straits if the government does not give them a helping hand soon.

Thirdly, and most crucially, the normal three-month inventory of medical protective gear for hospital employees has now been reduced to just one month. This precarious situation is putting medical workers in even greater jeopardy while they are already risking their lives to look after patients infected by the coronavirus. The government owes it to them to do whatever it takes to increase this vital safety margin before a tragedy occurs from the current shortage.

Hence the government must now take a bold and comprehensive strategy to deal with the face mask shortage crisis. It should address vigorously both the supply and demand sides.

On the supply side, the government should consider taking the drastic measure of declaring the face mask a strategic commodity. Having worked in the Customs and Excise Department before, I know this is a simple legal process of including it in the Schedule of Strategic Commodities under the Import and Export Ordinance. The legal process can be done overnight as the authority rests with the chief executive and the Executive Council. Once it is included, the government can impose conditions and measures on its importation and distribution. What the government can do is to require all imports of face masks to be given advance declaration to customs. Upon the arrival of the consignment, customs should be empowered to take over half of the consignment, with the government purchasing them at a reasonable price to ensure a profit for the importer. The other half will be released for normal commercial use. In this way, it strikes a balance of maintaining a free market, preserving the government’s non-intervention policy and protecting the public interest. The half-consignment taken over by the government can then be distributed to the Hospital Authority and the city’s neediest — the poor and elderly.

The government can also follow the Shanghai example of issuing vouchers for purchasing face masks to all citizens, and restricting pharmacies to selling them only to citizens with vouchers, thereby preventing hoarding. A maximum price per box should be fixed, and any pharmacies that failed to follow the rule would be criminally liable, as well as having their licenses revoked. If the Watsons store can introduce an internet registration of buyers and attract over 1 million registration overnight, surely the government can come up with the required and better system of even distribution.

Simultaneously, the government should explore and expedite all avenues for overseas procurement as well as mainland procurement, now that the mainland factories have reached over 90 percent production after the Lunar New Year break.

The government should also support the business and industrial sectors in setting up local production lines, especially in manufacturing reusable face masks. The process must be quick and free from bureaucracy. We should learn from the spirit and efficiency of the mainland government, where two pop-up hospitals with a total of over 2,000 beds were built in 10 days. The event does demonstrate what can be accomplished by a determined government with proper planning.
On the demand side, the government must educate the public that there is no need to wear a mask constantly. As long as one is sure that he or she is unlikely to be in close contact with other individuals who are infected, there is no need to wear a mask.

One grave area of concern is the waste and theft of medical materials in government hospitals. The nurses’ union has recently written to the Hospital Authority complaining that many of those medical employees who returned to work after the unsuccessful five-day strike have behaved in a most irresponsible and unprofessional manner through willful wastage of medical supplies. Allegedly, some had openly declared that they would change their face mask every hour! In the current severe shortage of face masks in the community, that borders on criminal sabotage! There are also reports of thefts by medical employees, with two such cases now under police investigation. The Hospital Authority should consult the Corruption Prevention Department of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) for quick advice on how to reduce the opportunities for theft and undue waste, such as installing more concealed CCTV cameras in strategic locations in hospitals. Those caught should be immediately dismissed.

Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Some of the above proposed measures may require the Hong Kong SAR government to invoke emergency regulations, but its hands are tied by the recent High Court judgment that ruled that the anti-mask law is unconstitutional and incompatible with the Basic Law, and that the government has no authority to do so. One would have thought that the Court of Appeal could see the urgency to reinvest in the government the authority to exercise its emergency powers. But the judges are now working from home and apparently failed to see the urgency!

As time is critical, the National People’s Congress should now take up the matter and give its authoritative interpretation of the Basic Law in this regard. Its usual pragmatic interpretation on this occasion would undoubtedly be supported by most of our long-suffering citizenry!


The author is an adjunct professor of HKU Space, and a council member of the Chinese Society of Hong Kong and Macao Studies. He is also a former deputy commissioner of the ICAC, and an international anti-corruption consultant.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.


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