Humor can't mask cruel reality

Editorial | Mary Ma 12 Feb 2020

There's a mask joke going around that is pretty pathetic - but it contains a grain of truth.

It goes like this: if you have no, or just a few masks, at home you must be very poor.

You are probably from the middle class if you have several boxes.

And you must be rich if you have 10 or more boxes at home as only the wealth have the channels to access them.

It's pathetic because, during normal times, masks are just low-cost consumer products.

Surgical masks have not only morphed into a different kind of wealth but have also become a symbol of access to resources that have become increasingly remote from ordinary folks.

The elderly - mostly underprivileged in society thanks to a lack of proper retirement protection - are increasingly dependent on kind-hearted entrepreneurs or well-known philanthropists handing out free supplies.

I was shocked to read a report that one elderly man didn't go out for 10 days because masks have become so scarce he couldn't secure one.

The situation is more pathetic than during SARS.

But a new question pops up as the scramble continues. As some big firms and public figures from across the political spectrum give out masks for free after securing them by the tens of thousands, does it also mean that others who are less resourceful are deprived of a share of the limited supply, meaning the rest have to pay several hundred dollars more for a box of 50? Charitable distributions aren't a solution. The shortage has everything to do with the basic economics of demand and supply.

China is the world's biggest producer of masks. So it becomes a massive issue when the country also runs out and its stocks cannot meet the need of a population of almost 1.4 billion.

It is impossible to produce fast enough to meet the need. Basic arithmetic shows that if a mainlander uses one mask a day, then 1.4 billion masks are needed each day.

When supply cannot increase, the shortage becomes desperate. And if overseas Chinese were able to take home a few hundred masks per family during the Lunar New Year, stocks are now sold out on Amazon and eBay. The run on masks is going on not only here and in the mainland but in many other parts of the world.

What can Hong Kong do in face of this cruel reality?

While priorities may be set for distribution, the best we can hope for is for expert suggestions on making masks last longer or, better still, on how they can be used a number of times.

Could someone in the scientific field start working on that?

We have already seen people trying to be innovative by inserting tissue paper in the hope of reducing pollution so as to use the same mask for a few more days.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Ann Chiang Lai-wan may have become a laughing stock with her theory about steaming masks. I'm sure she won't be the last one to try to be creative before someone in a better position is able to put forward a credible suggestion.

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