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Bungled mask supply scheme irks citizens fretting over coronavirus


Many South Koreans, increasingly concerned over the fast-spreading new coronavirus, are queuing and nimbly logging on to online shopping malls to purchase protective masks, but they are being frustrated by a hastily-orchestrated state scheme.

Many citizens expected to buy state-supplied face masks from Thursday at designated outlets, but most selected mask sellers apparently were not supplied with enough facial masks.

South Korea on Wednesday announced that some 3.5 million face masks will be supplied daily to post offices, pharmacies and stores of National Agricultural Cooperative Federation, better known as Nonghyup here, starting Thursday.

From early morning, people formed long lines at post offices and Nonghyup's retail stores, but most of them returned home empty handed.

A housewife in Busan said she first visited a post office in her neighborhood, but had to turn around after seeing a sign that the post office planned to sell masks from next Monday. She then visited a pharmacy next to the post office, but was told adult-size face masks were all sold out.

The situation was no different in other parts of the country.

Many people visiting post offices had to leave in disappointment after officials told them masks will be available for purchase next week.

"It feels like I've been betrayed by the government," one citizen said. "It seems like the government doesn't know what is really happening on the ground."

At major retail stores where face masks were in stock, people had to form long lines even before the stores opened. To maintain order, store officials had to distribute numbered tickets to those in line.

"People at the front of the line said they have waited here from 4 a.m.," a citizen in Daejeon, 164 kilometers south of Seoul, said while waiting in line to purchase masks. "If the situation gets worse, we may see people wait in line with their own tents."

As many people complain about buying face masks, the government said Thursday it may take a couple more days to get enough face masks in stock. However, it said that masks will be supplied to public retail channels as promised.

"We have been working hard to make the country's 145 mask producers ink supply deals with post offices and Nonghyup stores," a government official said. "It takes one or two days to produce masks and actually deliver them to designated stores."

Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki said at least 1.2 million face masks will be available for purchase at pharmacies from Friday, adding that the price of those masks will be cheaper than the masks currently sold in the market.

Industry insiders expected that the government-supplied masks are likely to be sold for around 1,000 won ($0.80), one-fourth the price of masks sold on the market.

South Korea has been imposing strict regulations as demand for face masks has been soaring during the novel coronavirus outbreak.

Under the toughened regulations, hoarders of face masks can face a prison sentence of up to two years or a maximum fine of 50 million won. Distributors are also obligated to notify authorities if they sell more than 10,000 surgical masks to a single buyer. (Yonhap)