Face mask shortages in Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic are leading to price increases, causing many to reuse their disposable masks, make their own masks at home, or use materials like baby wipes to cover their faces.
People in the Southeast Asian countries are petitioning their governments to rectify the shortages and to address other problems in the medical equipment supply chain.
Sources told RFA’s Lao Service that mask scarcity is becoming a problem in many different parts of the country, driving the price up as much as tenfold when they are available.
“I have been going to the hospital to buy [masks] but they are running short too,” a resident of the capital Vientiane told RFA Friday.
“I’ve seen some for sale on the street, but I don’t know if they are of good quality. The price is getting really high here. Usually we could buy five masks for 5,000 kip (U.S. $0.50), but now one mask costs that much,” the resident said.
In the ancient former capital city of Luang Prabang, masks are even more expensive.
“A whole box of masks doesn’t cost 20,000 kip ($2) anymore here. It costs 200,000 ($20),” a resident of the city told RFA.
Another Luang Prabang resident told RFA that the high prices have led many people to recycle used masks.
“I don’t buy masks anymore. I just wash the used ones and reuse them again, and I also add a napkin as an extra layer to it, making it thicker,” said the man.
The issue has citizens calling on their government to control prices and eliminate price gouging. The government has fixed mask prices at 25,000 kip ($2.50) per box of 25, and has punished some people caught breaking the rules, but sellers by and large are ignoring the government order.
“Some people are just taking advantage of the crisis by raising prices, while others are buying lots of masks and reselling them at higher prices. The authorities should enforce the rules,” a villager who requested anonymity told RFA.
Another villager told RFA, “When our country has infected cases, sellers are price gouging, but buyers have no choice but to pay. We can’t demand anything. The authorities have been around to stop them from raising the price, but they haven’t been effective.”
Health Minister Bounthong Sihavong announced last week that two million face masks would be imported from neighboring countries soon. According to the plan, 1.5 million of them will be given to health workers while the rest will be sold to public.
Also in Laos, authorities are worried that thousands of unemployed migrant workers returning from Thailand won’t comply with a 14-day quarantine order, and will return to their homes, potentially spreading the coronavirus far and wide.
Business owners have also asked the government to extend their mandated pricing to utilities, given that many businesses are in the red as customers stay home.
‘Iron fist’ measures in Cambodia
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen warned Wednesday that the government would use its “iron fist” to permanently shut down businesses that inappropriately increase the price of facemasks.
“We all know it is hard to buy masks right now. I am looking into possible legal actions [against businesses that price gouge],” he said to local media.
“We will confiscate all the overpriced masks. If you don’t drop prices the government will use our iron fist. We will not only confiscate [the masks] and stop your business, but we will also ban you from doing business for [the rest of your] lives.”
Despite the warning, Phnom Penh has issued no public regulation addressing the issue.
The prime minister also asked government officials from his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodian parliament to purchase masks and krama (Cambodia’s traditional scarf) for distribution to the people.
The spokesman for the ministry of commerce told local media that his ministry is looking into imposing measures to regulate the prices of masks and hand sanitizer. These would include requiring sellers to display prices prominently.
Neither Hun Sen nor the country’s health minister were willing to disclose the amount of masks, hand sanitizer and other protective equipment Cambodia has stockpiled.
Despite all the talk about keeping prices down, the situation on the ground remains the same.
“It’s hard for [even vendors] to buy masks,” Nib Soeurng told RFA’s Khmer Service Thursday.
The Phnom Penh street vendor said that at $1.50 per mask, prices remain too high and the government has not intervened. She added that most vendors simply cannot afford to buy the masks, and that some even fell for an online scam where masks were promised at low prices but never delivered.
She said that she has been using mask alternatives like wearing a hat and covering her face with cloth.
Chheng Viceth, a garbage collector in the same city, told RFA that the sanitation company he works for did not supply him with a single mask, giving him only a pair of gloves and some soap.
“Some homeowners are kind enough that they gave me some,” he said.
The head of a civil society organization was critical of the government’s failure to keep prices down.
“In other countries, their governments spend lots of money to help the people,” said Kao Poeun, the secretary general of the Informal Economic Association.
“If the government wants to help, they should import more masks and sell them cheaply,” he said, adding that the measure would cause private sellers to reduce their prices in turn.
As a part of China’s move to provide aid to countries stricken with COVID-19, recently dubbed “mask diplomacy,” a Chinese medical team donated to Cambodia a package of medical and protective equipment that included 58,000 surgical masks, 55,000 medical masks and 5,000 N95 masks among other protective gear, local media reported.
The package comes several weeks after Cambodia itself had donated 300,000 masks to China on March 2, at a time when there was not a single confirmed case of the virus in Cambodia.
Vietnam has also pledged to provide $100,000 in medical equipment to both Cambodia and Laos as well as offering to send medical experts, Vietnam Express reported.
Illegal mask exports in Vietnam
Experts in Vietnam told RFA that the country faces a shortage of face masks, revealing that hundreds of thousands of masks have been sold abroad for higher prices.
The shortage is compounded by the fact that since COVID-19 became a global problem, the supply chain for the materials necessary to manufacture masks has been disrupted.
Most of the materials are imported from China, but other suppliers are in the EU, Malaysia and Indonesia, which are all dealing with their own outbreaks.
Many provinces and province-level cities in the country are calling for the health ministry to step in to rectify the problem as scarcity drives prices higher and higher.
A nurse in Ho Chih Minh City told RFA’s Vietnamese Service Wednesday that the local market has been sold out of 3M face masks for some time, adding that only poor-quality face masks can be found for 150,000 dong ($6.42) per box.
“I do not buy those, though,” she said.
“I only use fabric face masks at the hospital. These can be washed and re-used,” she said.
Nguyen Lai, a resident of Nha Trang, told RFA the shortage has encouraged people to sew their own masks.
Health officials warn that fabric masks do not offer the same level of protection as manufactured ones.
Dr. Nguyen Thi Xuyen, president of the Vietnam Medical Association, told RFA that fabric masks can only be used by healthy people with no COVID-19 symptoms, and medical face masks must be used in all health facilities.
Dr. To Quang Dinh, the former vice chairman of the Otolaryngology Association in Danang, told RFA a four-layer fabric face mask might protect against most viruses but it should not be used around COVID-19 patients; it should be used only by people outside of hospitals.
He estimated that the shortage was only temporary.
“I think in the next 10 days, Vietnam will produce 3 million face masks and the number of COVID-19 patients will remain below 1,000 cases,” he said.
Vietnam has to date reported 163 confirmed cases with 20 recoveries.
Domestic companies in Vietnam are expected to produce 30 million face masks by the first half of April, according to a plan instituted by the Trade and Industry Ministry.
In neighboring Myanmar, people are dealing with their own mask shortages by using baby wipes as substitutes. The shortage has extended to medical professionals and masks either cannot be found in the local market or are only available at exorbitant prices.
Reported by RFA’s Lao, Khmer, and Vietnamese Services and Nandar Chann for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Max Avary, Sovannarith Keo, Huy Le, and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.