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S. Korea striving to improve supply of face masks amid mounting public anger

All News 10:55 March 03, 2020

SEOUL, March 3 (Yonhap) -- South Korea is making all-out efforts to improve the supply of face masks as the country's novel coronavirus situation worsens, but public anger is running high over its hastily orchestrated supply scheme.

The country last week approved a plan to limit face mask exports to a maximum of 10 percent of total output and distribute 50 percent through public retail platforms, claiming that this will supply 5 million protective masks to the domestic market daily beginning Thursday.

Under the scheme, state-supplied masks are available for purchase at post offices, pharmacies, medical institutions and supermarkets operated by the National Agricultural Cooperative Federation, better known as Nonghyup here.

Citizens form long lines to buy face masks at Happy Department Store, a designated retailer selling state-supplied masks, in Seoul on March 3, 2020. (Yonhap)

There is a limit of five face masks per person per purchase. Prices of state-supplied masks are around 1,000 won (US$0.80) to 1,500 won each, about one-fourth the price of masks sold on the market.

However, the plan came under fire when people had to form long lines, waiting for hours to get masks at designated stores, with large number of citizens returning home empty-handed after the stores ran out of masks.

"I went to 15 supermarkets and pharmacies on Sunday, but couldn't buy a single mask," a citizen in Daegu said. "So now I go to a supermarket early in the morning to be the first in line."

The government admitted that its scheme is not working well and vowed to improve it.

"We apologize deeply to people regarding mask issues," Kim Gang-lip, the country's vice health minister, said at press briefing on Sunday. "Despite our efforts to utilize public retail platforms, we regret that many people are not satisfied with mask supply. We will consider every possible measure to fix the problem."

Citizens wait in line to purchase masks at a pharmacy in Daejeon, South Korea, on March 3, 2020. (Yonhap)

Of the government's daily supply of 5 million masks, 1 million are distributed to Daegu and surrounding North Gyeongsang Province -- the epicenters of the virus outbreak here, where more than 80 percent of the country's novel coronavirus infections have been reported. Some 500,000 are distributed to post offices in rural areas, and 2.4 million masks are supplied to 24,000 pharmacies.

The government originally considered distributing its masks to the country's 43,000 convenience stores but decided against it since its daily supply volume was deemed insufficient.

As South Koreans are struggling to secure face masks, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said the government is considering implementing tougher mask supply measures this week.

"We came up with the mask supply measure last week, but I'm thinking that it may be insufficient to solve the problem," Chung said on Sunday. "We will prepare for better measures to alleviate the situation in which people are struggling to buy masks."


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