Difficulty buying face masks extends to foreign community

Taipei Buying face masks has been a challenge for many people in Taiwan during the first two days of a new government rationing program, and members of the international community told CNA Friday they were having similar problems.

Demand for face masks has surged amid fears of the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus (2019 nCoV), and shortages have forced the government to ration mask purchases to two per person every seven days at pharmacies contracted by the national health insurance (NHI) system.

Many Taiwanese have been forced to wait in lines to get their hands on two of the 200 face masks made available at each pharmacy per day or have found that the pharmacies have sold out, and foreign nationals have faced similar problems.

Perla Lupo, a factory worker from the Philippines, said it was very difficult to buy face masks where she is in Guanyin District in Taoyuan because she and her colleagues need to be at work when the masks are being sold.

"The line is already long at seven in the morning. (To make matters worse) the pharmacy opens at 11 a.m.," she said, adding that the limited number of pharmacies in Guanyin Industrial Park is also a problem.

For industrial parks with large numbers of migrant workers and few pharmacies, as is the case in Guanyin, "why don't you consider a moving store for masks to reach those who cant find pharmacies?" Lupo suggested.

Erick Gonzales, a religious studies teacher from the Philippines, said he learned about the new rationing system Thursday from his local pharmacy in Dazhi District in Taipei where he lives and works, but was unable to purchase any masks due to the high demand.

The pharmacy ran out of masks in 30 minutes, Gonzales said, but he appreciated the help he was given by the worker there who told him the best time to go and the days on which he could buy masks, something he said was important to his health as someone who is asthmatic.

"I worry about getting sick at this time. I want to buy masks not only as a precaution to contracting the nCoV and N1 flu, but also the common cold," he said.

Meanwhile, British expat Daniel Cunningham, who works in Taipei, said he had not come across a store in the city with any masks in stock since last week, but he did not seem worried.

He feels masks are only needed while taking public transportation as an act of courtesy to other passengers, and he has actually cut down his use of the MRT and buses over the past week in favor of U bikes.

American John Chen said he has not had any luck getting the masks from pharmacies after the program hit the road.

Chen, who wears a mask every day due to frequent MRT rides and meetings, said he had problems understanding how the system works in the beginning and had to get someone to explain to him.

He felt the new approach, however, was better than what came before it, when people could buy three at a time from convenience stores whenever they were able to line up at the right time.

"I think it's good they controlled it, so people can't buy them all. I think this will make it easier to buy [masks] than before."

There was also a sense among those interviewed, including Cunningham, that the face mask phenomenon has gone overboard.

"I feel that Taiwan has a case of mass hysteria at the moment, which is probably related to the shared experience of the SARS outbreak in 2003," he said.

He was more concerned about the environmental impact of the disposal of used surgical masks at a time when millions of people are using them every day.

Adrian Saunders from the United Kingdom said there was too much emphasis on wearing masks.

"Wearing masks is not common in Western countries, so I think it's not impressing foreigners much, especially as many people don't use them properly," Saunders said, arguing that more attention should be given to keeping good hygiene.

"Concern is one thing, because, yes, this could turn nasty. But panicking about masks seems, at best, pointless," he said.

Source: Focus Taiwan News Channel