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Taiwanese Scramble for Face Masks to Stop Deadly Virus From Nearby China

A vendor wears a face mask and waits for customers at a night market in Taipei, Taiwan, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020.

Taiwanese people are leading an Asian face mask craze this month to ward off threats from a deadly virus they fear will jump from its nearby source country China into a local population that was already extra cautious about getting sick.

Local vendors normally produce 1.9 million masks a day and they’re now pushing out 3.2 million to 40 million, according to government Industrial Development Bureau figures. The island’s 80 mask producers have raised production to meet rising demand despite a rationing of sales to ensure no one hoards the supplies, a bureau official said.

Many people in Taiwan, which is 160 kilometers from China, worry that a novel coronavirus discovered in December will eventually infect their own population. All 18 known cases known in Taiwan so far are linked to travel from China, where hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese work and invest.

Chinese authorities had reported a cumulative 908 coronavirus deaths among 40,171 cases Sunday.

“Taiwan because of its geography is close to mainland China and in addition you have Taiwanese people going back and forth quite frequently, whether tourists or Taiwanese, then add that we’re in winter, the season most suitable for the spread of disease,” said Chiu Cheng-hsun, a professor and doctor with the Linkou Chang Gung hospital children’s respiratory disease department.

“As soon as mainland China has no way to control this epidemic, then Taiwan could become the first place to get hit,” Chiu said.

People throughout much of East Asia have bought up surgical face masks as a precaution against catching the virus. A mask, the same type found in hospitals throughout the world, stops droplets coughed out by an infected person from landing on other people. Demand for masks has surged particularly in countries such as Malaysia and Thailand that get high numbers of Chinese tourists.

Masks jumped in popularity last month so fast that the Taiwan government asked factories to raise production and rationed purchases. Shoppers must swipe their National Health Insurance cards in approved pharmacies to get their maximum of two masks, every two days. The swipe leaves a computerized purchase record.

Two vendors wear face masks and wait for customers at a night market in Taipei, Taiwan, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020.
Two vendors wear face masks and wait for customers at a night market in Taipei, Taiwan, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020.

Pharmacists said last week the government was also controlling supplies to their stores, for example 200 masks per day.

Lines of 50 people or more have formed outside the pharmacies – only to find in some cases that stock has sold out.

People in Taipei say they support the rationing as a way to ensure no one hoards supplies.

“Some people have time to shop for masks and others don’t have time, so now there is a computerized record,” said Lee Kuo-bin, 58, a Taipei man who uses masks even when there’s no specific virus threat. He checked a cluster of pharmacies behind a hospital last week but found nothing.

Bernie Huang, 31, a Taipei high school teacher, uses two masks per week and fears his compatriots are overreacting.

“Due to the prevailing fear for the new coronavirus, many Taiwanese people buy masks in bulk and hoard the masks. However, healthy people don’t have to wear masks all the time, and the hoarding of masks will cut out people who actually need to wear masks, such as people with chronic diseases and respiratory infections,” he said.

“The face mask rationing policy ensures that the masks are definitely available for people who actually need the masks,” Huang said.

Mask users are motivated by television images of people wearing the own and news about the rising death count in China, said George Hou, a mass communications lecturer at Taiwan-based I-Shou University. “In almost every televised image you have demonstrations of people using face masks,” he said.

Local scarcity prompts people to worry all the more, he added.

Taiwanese were already using masks before the coronavirus outbreak on a perception the gear could block pollution and any germs suspended in the air. The island with a dense population where multiple generations live under the same roof is prone to influenza and a contagious gastrointestinal illness that has killed small children, all raising fear of disease. The 10% of people who once wore masks in Taipei now exceeds 50%.

Taiwanese also recall the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic of 2003, said Huang Kwei-bo, vice dean of the international affairs college at National Chengchi University in Taipei. SARS originated in China and spread to Taiwan, killing 73 on the island.

Some of the government's rules, such as a two-week delay in starting the new public-school semester, are confusing or excessive, he said. Children clumped together risk spreading disease, but the semester delay has caused childcare headaches for some families.

“If there are people who think the Tsai Ing-wen government is a bit over the top about this outbreak, I think as long as it’s not too exaggerated of an overkill, I can accept it,” he said.