How South Korea Solved Its Face Mask Shortage



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The coronavirus erupted in South Korea in late January, six months into Yoo Yoon-sook’s new job. She had just moved from Seoul, where she spent three decades working in the same pharmacy, to open the Hankyeol (“Steadfast”) Pharmacy in the city of Incheon, near the international airport. Ms. Yoo hadn’t really gotten a sense of the neighborhood around her new pharmacy “before this all happened,” she told me. It became all coronavirus, all the time.

1月下旬冠状病毒在韩国暴发时,柳允淑(Yoo Yoon-sook,音)的新工作刚开始六个月。此前,她在首尔的同一家药房工作了30年。她刚搬离首尔,在国际机场附近的仁川市开了一家“坚定”药房(Hankyeol)。她告诉我,“在这一切发生之前”,她还没有来得及了解新药房附近的街区。冠状病毒成了一切,无时无刻不是如此。

Incheon’s 1,100 pharmacies, including Ms. Yoo’s, began to sell out of KF-94 face masks, the equivalent of the American N95. So did corner stores and large retail chains like E-Mart. As Koreans learned of the scale and aggressiveness of Covid-19, first from Chinese reports, then from a surge of cases at home, the mask with the weave and construction that proved most effective against the virus could not be found, except at exorbitant prices online. Customers grew angry waiting outside stores. One Incheon pharmacy posted a sign saying, “Regarding masks: Threats, physical violence and insults against employees are punishable under criminal law.”


Such was the extent of the “mask crisis” when the central government decided to intervene in production and distribution. At the end of February, it announced that it would purchase 50 percent of KF-94 masks from the nation’s 130 or so manufacturers. The government began to ship these masks, at a discounted price of 1,500 won each (about $1.23), to some 23,000 pharmacies, in cooperation with the Korean Pharmaceutical Association.

中央政府就是在“口罩危机”发展到这个程度时决定干预生产和分配的。2月底,政府宣布将从全国130多家制造商那里购买全部KF-94口罩库存的50%。政府开始与韩国药品协会(Korean Pharmaceutical Association)合作,以约1500韩元(约合1.23美元)的折扣价,将这些口罩运送至23000家药房。

Pharmacies would earn no more than a few dozen cents on each sale — a few even reported losing money because of credit-card fees — but they embraced their role in the epidemic response. Licensed pharmacists were ideally placed to answer questions about Covid-19, give instructions on social distancing and proper use of masks, and refer sick people to field testing stations and hospitals. (In rural areas of South Korea, where there are fewer pharmacies, agricultural cooperative offices and post offices sell the face masks.)



Heo Ran/Reuters

At Hankyeol Pharmacy, Ms. Yoo posted a sign on the door, telling customers that the sale of KF-94s would begin at 9 a.m. every morning. It was impossible to fill prescriptions or sell anything else during the mask rush. “All of us local pharmacists posted the various times of sale on our door and a map of all the nearby locations,” she told me. Popular mapping apps from Kakao and Naver also showed information on pharmacies and real-time numbers of available masks.


Ms. Yoo was initially allotted 50 masks per day, six days a week, but this wasn’t nearly enough. As South Korea’s infection and fatality numbers grew, people felt desperate for protection. Across the country, pharmacists continued to face long lines and insults when masks sold out.


On March 5, the government increased its share of mask purchases to 80 percent of national production. The following day, Ms. Yoo received a text message from President Moon Jae-in, addressed to “the pharmacists of Korea.” In addition to expanding mask manufacturing, the government was about to start a new rationing system.


“Starting today, 70 percent of all masks acquired through the public distribution system will be sold at pharmacies,” Mr. Moon wrote. “Pharmacies are the primary on-the-ground node in our public health system.” All citizens and registered noncitizens could buy two masks per week on an assigned weekday, depending on their year of birth — a system similar to one used in Taiwan since early February.


The Incheon Pharmaceutical Association encouraged its members to stay open on Sundays, to receive as many daily shipments as possible, so Ms. Yoo began working seven days a week. Her daily shipment went from 50 to 400 masks, with more on the weekends.

仁川医药协会(Incheon Pharmaceutical Association)鼓励会员在周日营业,尽可能接收每日配额,因此柳允淑开始每周工作七天。她每天收到的口罩配额从50个增加到400个,周末更多。

This week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is weighing whether to recommend that everyone — not just health care workers and people infected with the coronavirus — wear masks. If this advice is issued, Americans may finally embrace wearing face masks, something that has long been common in East Asia, not only during disease outbreaks, but also during cold season and whenever air pollution levels rise.

本周,美国疾病控制与预防中心(Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)正在权衡是否建议所有人——不仅仅是医护人员和冠状病毒感染者——都戴口罩。一旦做出这个建议,美国人可能最终会接受口罩,它在东亚很常见,不仅在疾病暴发期间,在寒冷的季节和空气污染水平上升期间也是如此。

Such guidance could also worsen the already dire shortage of N95 face masks and other personal protective equipment. 3M has promised to make more than a billion N95 masks by the end of the year. But without a vast expansion of complementary manufacturing or imports, supplies will be inadequate.


South Korea and Taiwan responded to their mask crises with significant market interventions. America needs to do the same. The U.S. government, and state and municipal bodies, should immediately enter into large-scale contracts to produce masks that can be sold at an affordable, standard price.


These masks (and other personal protective equipment) should go first to health providers and hospitals, then to essential workers in sanitation, warehouses, transportation, food service, child-care centers, and people in prisons and detention facilities. A distribution plan along the lines of those in East Asia could then get masks to the public, perhaps through pharmacies, corner stores and post offices. Some of those masks should also be allocated, free of charge, to people who are homeless or living below the federal poverty level.


For most of us, an N95 mask is not strictly necessary. Last weekend, I used a free online pattern to sew masks for myself and family members, using old handkerchiefs, shirts and elastic hair ties. I wore my homemade mask, reinforced with a large gauze bandage, to the grocery store and bodega, while trying to stay six feet away from fellow shoppers.


To survive this pandemic, we Americans must stop viewing masks as a sign of disease, and see them instead as a social kindness, a courtesy as common as “please” and “thank you.” As Choi Gwi-ok, a pharmacist in northern Seoul, told me, “Koreans wear masks to protect themselves from infections, but, even more important, to show consideration for others in public.”

为了在这场大流行中幸存,我们美国人必须停止将口罩视为疾病的表现,而是将其视为一种社会友善,一种像“请”和“谢谢”一样常见的礼貌。首尔北部的药剂师崔桂玉(Choi Gwi-ok,音)告诉我,“韩国人戴口罩是为了保护自己不受感染,但更重要的是,也是在公共场合关照他人。”

Kuk Seung-gon, the president of the pharmacists’ association in Gimcheon, near South Korea’s Covid-19 hot spot, told me: “It’s been terrible to see what’s been happening in Europe and America. I really hope that, in the West, people develop a culture of mask wearing. A mask is not just for sick patients.”

韩国Covid-19感染热点附近城市金川的药剂师协会会长国承健(Kuk Seung-gon,音)告诉我:“欧洲和美国的情况看上去非常可怕。我真的希望西方人能养成戴口罩的文化。口罩不只是给病人用的。”

By the end of March, the lines for masks outside South Korea’s pharmacies had become manageable. “Now that people are able to buy two masks per week, they feel reassured,” Ms. Yoo told me. “We pharmacists do, too.”


“After three weeks of constant work, the fatigue has built up. I’m very tired,” she said. But she feels a duty to the public, and plans to keep the pharmacy open seven days a week until the crisis is over.