Editorial : The procurement of masks

【明報專訊】IT REMAINS uncertain when the novel coronavirus epidemic will peak. Facing the threat of the virus, the government has to tackle the epidemic and address public sentiments. Both tasks are equally important. Whether Hong Kong will successfully stave off the epidemic depends on whether there are major outbreaks in the communities, the final number of diagnoses and the final number of deaths. At this stage it is difficult to be certain about them. But it is obvious that the government has done a poor job of handling public sentiments. While not everyone is equally afraid of or worried about the epidemic, the chaotic situations originating from the hoarding and price-gouging of masks and the scramble for daily necessities have definitely affected the public as a whole. Citizens do not feel that the government has taken any decisive action to alleviate this problem. The issue of masks reflects the strength and mindset of the SAR government. Unlike the Taiwanese or the Singaporean government, it has not vigorously interfered in the use of and demand for masks. As for ensuring supply, it is doubtful whether its global procurement strategy has been effective.

Last week Hong Kong people rushed to supermarkets to scramble for toilet paper, rice and other food items because of rumours circulating on social media. The hysteria in society became an international talking point. Despite the fact that over the past few days there have not been such chaotic scenes in general, many citizens remain worried that things are out of stock. In supermarkets, big or small, on many housing estates or in shopping malls, racks that held toilet paper, rice and other food items became completely empty or near empty afternoon. Every morning many residents, having accurately identified the time when goods were back in stock in big supermarkets, went there to purchase daily necessities such as toilet paper. Even though some big supermarkets have set a quota on the number of purchases, these goods are sold out quickly nevertheless. If the government deduces from the "relative peace" over the past few days in markets that the situation of people being restless and stressed has been resolved, it will be completely misguided.

Take the issue of masks. Recently what citizens have cared about most is, we are afraid, not what government officials have said but which shop, politician or political party has masks to distribute. What the government has said over and over again over the past few days is that it has been "sourcing masks actively around the world". Regarding the situation in which masks have become so scarce that they cannot be bought regardless of how much money one has, the government's attitude, to put it simply, is that everything has to be determined by the demand and supply of the market. Even though there are hoarding and price-gouging of masks, the government is "powerless to help". While citizens are worried about the lack of masks and go everywhere to look for them, the government has chosen not to act in the name of "avoiding the disruption to the supply", and has refused to introduce regulations to combat the hoarding and price-gouging of masks. It is no wonder that people feel that the government is out of touch with them and has no empathy for citizens' pressing needs.

The problem of mask shortage around the world is so serious that it cannot be solved simply by relying on the so-called adjustments to the free market. Hong Kong is fighting a battle against the epidemic. This being "wartime", it is necessary for the government to put aside its bureaucratic mindset and the shackle of the free market ideology. It must pluck up the courage to regulate masks and other "anti-epidemic strategic supplies".

明報社評2020.02.13:口罩採購說易行難 官僚離地難紓民憂






stave off : If you stave off something bad, or if you stave it off, you succeed in stopping it from happening for a while.

alleviate : to make sth less severe

pressing : needing to be dealt with immediately

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