Drug stores in Japan are scrambling to restock their supply of surgical masks to keep up with growing demand as fears deepen over the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Surgical masks are often the first thing people use to protect themselves from infectious diseases, and as reports of the deadly coronavirus thought to have originated in China continue to emerge in countries around the world, they have become increasingly difficult to find.

In Tokyo, daily shipments of masks are arriving later every day and drug stores often find themselves with empty shelves.

“Every day we’re out of masks within a few hours of opening,” said a clerk at a drug store in Shinjuku Ward who asked not to be named. “It’s been that way since the outbreak started.”

Other stores nearby were experiencing similar issues. Most of them said surgical masks are typically sold out by 10 a.m. and daily shipments weren’t arriving on time. Others had to limit the number of masks each customer could buy to prevent one shopper from emptying their entire stock.

Clever, a manufacturer of mesh items in Toyohashi, Aichi Prefecture, said it is receiving nearly 20 times the usual number of orders for high-end face masks from both domestic and international customers.

The company, which experienced a similar uptick in sales during previous outbreaks of Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), said it has been getting between 200 and 300 orders a day since the first case in Aichi of the new coronavirus was reported Sunday.

The company, which usually gets about 10 orders a day during this time of the year, allocated all workers from other product lines to focus on making masks.

“I’m sorry but we can’t keep up with the demand,” said company President Eri Ishibashi. “The particle size of the new coronavirus isn’t known yet so we can’t even say for sure that these masks will be effective.”

Surgical masks commonly found in drug stores are mostly designed to contain bacteria. N95 surgical masks, on the other hand, which can sometimes be found in pharmacies but are easier to find online, are used to prevent the inhalation of a virus and spread of infectious diseases. In any case, doctors say face masks should be worn so that your nose and mouth are completely covered without any space between the mask and the skin to prevent you from inhaling a virus or touching your face with your hands. What’s most important is to wash your hands thoroughly and frequently.

Protective masks are even harder to find in other countries. Suzuko Hirano, 26, has been gathering hundreds of them to send to Hong Kong, where she says the lack of mask manufacturers is forcing people to seek help from abroad. In the past two weeks, she has gathered nearly two thousand surgical masks with the help of other concerned Japanese to send to an organization in Hong Kong that will then distribute them.

Hirano sent a package containing about 750 masks last week. She has collected around 1,200 additional masks since then and she plans to send the second batch once she manages to gather 3,000.

In October, Hong Kongers raised ¥13.8 million in a crowdfunding campaign to help Japanese recover from a devastating typhoon days earlier.

“This time it’s our turn to help,” she said. “It’s not about nationality. The outbreak is reaching a crisis and we’re all in this together.”

Information from Kyodo added

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.