The Hospital Authority's stockpile of surgical face masks has depleted so rapidly that it will only last for a month. Scenes of people forming long queues to purchase face masks have nearly become everyday life in the city, and the problems of hoarding and price-gouging are serious. A heated debate has started over whether the government should enact legislation to regulate epidemic prevention supplies like surgical masks and to crack down on the hoarding and price-gouging of such supplies. The shortage of face masks has given rise to many sorts of disorder in society. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. It is not the time to be constrained by the myths of the free market now. While the appropriateness of regulation through legislation is open to discussion, the government should at least do something about the problem rather than sit on the sidelines.
Epidemic prevention supplies like face masks and alcohol-based hand sanitisers have become the most sought-after consumer products in Hong Kong. Nearly every day there are scenes of people forming long queues to snap them up. The reserves of surgical masks at governmental and medical organisations are also running low quickly. According to the internal documents of the Hospital Authority, public hospitals have consumed nearly 30 million surgical masks in the past month, several times that of normal usage. Currently, there are only 10 million surgical masks or so in the Hospital Authority's reserves. Even if we take into account a new batch of supplies available later, the total reserves are estimated to last for only a month. The government must step up its intervention and implement effective measures to manage the supply of surgical masks and prioritise the needs of healthcare workers.
In view of situations like the hoarding and price-gouging of surgical masks, some have suggested invoking the Reserved Commodities Ordinance and putting surgical masks on the list of reserved commodities. A member of the Executive Council has also proposed emergency legislation by the government to regulate the import, distribution and retail of epidemic prevention necessities including surgical masks and to prohibit hoarding and price-gouging. On the other hand, there are also voices that controlling the prices of surgical masks will violate free market principles. Yesterday (February 10) the government said at this stage it did not have any plans to dictate the supply and prices of surgical masks through legislation, since this "could be counterproductive rather than address the problem at source, i.e. inadequate supply."
At such extraordinary times, the government should put aside its ideological burden and pluck up the courage to think outside the box. It should not submit everything to the free market. Rather, it should think more about different ways of dealing with the various sorts of disorder in society arising from the shortage of surgical masks. Allowing the situation to worsen with nothing done will only make people more nervous and discontented.
Surgical masks are in nature medical protective supplies intended for medical workers, patients and other people in need. They are not daily consumer goods for ordinary people and the global production capacity for surgical masks is limited. At present, we are nearly practising universal face-mask-wearing in Hong Kong, with a daily demand of nearly three million masks as estimated by a retailer. If masks are consumed at this pace, it is simply impossible to procure adequate surgical masks from the international market. Even if more factories are set up to increase the domestic supply, that will not help much.
Unlike sunlight or air, epidemic prevention supplies are not inexhaustible. The government and experts in the field have to make it clear to the public as soon as possible that even without a surgical mask, it does not mean the end of the world or one will be automatically infected once away from home. The primary task right now is to ensure that healthcare workers are equipped with enough epidemic prevention supplies including surgical masks. The government can join hands with local experts to release epidemic prevention guidelines to educate the public on how to use masks, which are limited, wisely. That will also help people envisage what they can do when the supply of surgical masks depletes further.