Amid soaring COVID-19 cases in Korea, the government said Thursday that it would evenly distribute evenly face masks to people and ban export to help ease supply shortage at home.
The export ban came after the government took various steps to increase the supply of face masks, which fell far short of surging demand, as the nation reports several hundred new COVID-19 cases a day to an accumulated total of 5,776 on Thursday.
"The government has drawn up new measures to boost the supply of face masks and distribute them to the public fairly," Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said during an emergency Cabinet meeting, "We will first provide face masks to people in dire need of them, such as those who work at medical institutions, quarantine facilities and safety-related areas."
The government will distribute the remaining masks to the citizens evenly, Chung added.
To this end, the government will operate a computerized system to prevent repeated purchases by individuals while prohibiting their foreign shipments.
The ban on face mask export came after regulatory officials decided to limit mask export to a maximum of 10 percent of total output and distribute 50 percent through government agencies and public organizations last Wednesday.
However, the new regulation had little or no impact on providing masks to Koreans as many people still have to wait in long lines for hours to purchase masks provided through public channels.
In a related development, some people are taking issue with the imbalance in (the ability) to buy masks between young and older generations because of the “digital divide.”
People familiar with digital devices are at a far advantage in purchasing the masks.
"I have set alarms to notify me of sites that sell masks both on my phone and my computer and are trying to purchase as much of them if I get the chance," said a graduate student at Korea University, asking to remain anonymous. "While it is still hard to get face masks, even online shopping malls, I have managed to get my hands on dozens of masks."
The student added that while it is difficult to purchase the masks, it was not impossible as there were various points to buy them.
However, elderly citizens who were unfamiliar with digital devices were not able to enjoy similar benefits.
"Shopping for face masks online is a big obstacle for the elderly as we do not normally use our phones for shopping," Lee Won-hee, a housewife in her mid-60s, told Korea Biomedical Review. "I had to rush to pharmacies and post offices that were selling masks and wait in line for more than four hours. Still, I could not get any masks as they were sold out before I got a chance to buy them."
Lee said that on some lucky days, she could acquire the masks. Still, on others, she had to wait in line every day so that she can have enough masks for her family, expressing concerns about possible contagion while standing in the queues of strangers for hours.
Korea currently can produce up to 10 million face masks a day but is experiencing difficulties meeting demands, which market watchers attributed to export, hoarding by makers and vendors for excessive profiteering.
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