The COVID-19 disease has caused serious problems since it arose in China in December 2019. It has been spreading globally to over 200 countries and is threatening people’s health and the medical systems around the world (WHO,2020). As the number of cases continues to increase, the WHO (World Health Organization) declared COVID-19 a pandemic and announced some guidelines (WHO, 2020). The measures are being taken to overcome this situation depending on the countries. Using face masks is one of them in South Korea. The Korean government recommends the public to use face masks to prevent infection and protect others in the case of asymptomatic persons. This strategy made people buy more masks than usual and caused a new problem: The shortage of face masks. People lined up in front of the pharmacy, the most commonplace to buy masks in Korea, and even the workers in industrial and medical sectors faced the shortages. This crisis led to changes in social and economic areas in South Korea. This paper analyzes the situation and discusses options from the design perspective.
Corona in South Korea
South Korea is located near China and one of the countries infected greatly earlier than European countries. In late February and early March, it started spreading fast by cult people who visited Wuhan in China, the epicenter of the outbreak. They gathered together to attend worship, which caused a number of infections that exploded into thousands. However, South Korea reacted to this crisis with a smart, aggressive public health system (Cottlieb, 2020) and the amount of newly infected victims decreased.
Background culture about Mask in Korea
So, why has a shortage happened in South Korea? The cause lies in the increasing demand. Before discussing the reasons in more detail, we need to look at the background of the Korean situation. Because of air pollution (micro dust), it is very usual for non-medical people to use face masks in the street, and masks have become a part of fashion – we can often see Korean celebrities wearing them. Therefore, unlike European countries, using a mask was already ordinary and ubiquitous before the coronavirus broke out in other countries. This is why Koreans easily accepted the government’s recommendation (Wong, 2020). Moreover, the government’s initial response was ambiguous, because the coronavirus was new and unpredictable. There was not enough data about the benefits of face masks against viruses and instructions for using masks differed several times. In this confusing situation, the public chose to wear masks as a symbol (Kang M, 2020). This made a social norm, and people who don’t wear masks are criticized and considered as a person without responsibility for themselves and for communities. This atmosphere encourages more people to wear masks and acts as a behavioral nudge to remind the importance of personal hygiene (Wong, 2020).
Why has it happened?
First of all, there lies a shortage of raw materials. Masks are produced with simple processes. Only simple labor is needed such as attaching a filter, attaching non-woven fabrics, folding. The supply of raw materials is directly related to production capacity. The main material of the mask is Melt Blown (MB) filters and the problem was that Korean mask production companies used MB filters which were imported from China – about 30% in total (Kim, 2020). Because of the spreading of the virus in China, supply was stopped as the Chinese government prohibited the export of the filters. Although domestic filter companies increased production, the quantity of domestic production was not enough to meet the needs. Korean government started to support filter manufacturers to expand facilities, however, it had been already a month since the mask problem was issued.
Secondly, mask profiteers appeared. As mask demand continued to grow, some people tried to make a profit by hoarding masks. Some distribution companies proposed an unfair transaction to production companies, stocked up masks and sold them at a much higher price. Not only distribution companies, but also individuals used this strategy to feed their greed and avoid taxes. Because of those, who consider this crisis as an immoral opportunity, a large number of the mask,s which were provided to the public disappeared. This caused confusion over the fair supply of masks.
For these reasons, supply was unstable, despite demand increased rapidly. It was harder to get a mask and the queue in front of the pharmacies grew longer and longer. Immoral sellers raised their prices to exorbitant costs. People became angry about this situation. It was also stressful to pharmacist. Some people committed physical violence and insults against them, expressing their anger. Something had to be done to overcome this crisis.
How South Korea solved these problems
On 5th March, the government decided to directly intervene in the production and distribution process of the supply of face masks. The government takes care of 80 percent of the national face mask production every day. Out of these, 2 million are distributed first to medical institutions and the rest of them are sold to the public at a relatively low price of 1,500 WON each (about CHF 1.19) via public retailers such as pharmacies, post offices, etc(Kim, 2020). Moreover, a 5-day rotation system has been implemented, which allows people to buy two masks per week on specific days, depending on their year of birth. For example, people who were born in 1998 and 1995 have to buy masks on different day and ID cards must be shown. With this system, inventory status services are offered to the public via mapping apps, enabling people to check real-time numbers of purchasable masks in pharmacies. In the meantime, to reduce hoarding, the government catch mask profiteers, imposes a fine, and support the production of raw materials for masks.
Besides the government policies, individual and organizational contributions have also occurred. People donated face masks to those in need such as the elderly and organizations started some campaigns to share masks and offered a kit to make DIY masks. Companies also took action. Samsung, the biggest brand in South Korea, has supported mask manufacturers by dispatching experts and setting up equipment to increase production capability (Song,2020). Some companies came up with new ideas and developed new business. A company, named Desizon, designed cases to enable the mask to reuse, keeping them clean (Kim, 2020). Moreover, a upcycle total fashion company ‘Beltaco’ plans to work with Daegu Metropolitan City to develop a method of making masks with microfiber, which is often used for blankets, and provide them to the public (Na, 2020). Besides them, some companies provide face masks at a lower price than before, causing a stable supply.
What could be suggested?
Overall, South Korea is said to be one of the countries that flatten the curve of new infections and contain the spread of coronavirus successfully. Several things had to be done in order to create such a situation. From analyzing foreign mediums, fast implementation, extensive testing, tracing, isolation, and surveillance were helpful to beat the disease (Fisher, & Choe, 2020). In this shortage crisis, the government fast intervention seems to be proper for a stable supply of masks. Along with other policies and the participation of citizens, it could prevent the worst.
However, there are still some points to improve. First of all, as the government managed masks publicly, mask manufacturers suffered from overtime and loss of profits to produce masks at lower prices. Secondly, the several changes in the guidelines for masks from the government caused social confusion. Furthermore, the government’s policies are effective, though, they still have low accessibility to the elderly and disable people who are restricted from free moving to buy masks. Even if they line up in front of a pharmacy, they risk being exposed to the virus. Last but not least, the environmental side also should be considered. Increasing number of using disposable masks has led to a lot of waste. Harmful substances are generated when they are incinerated.
My suggestion for future actions in Korea would be to control who uses masks and buys masks better. Masks should be controllable, especially when exposed to the public in a disaster situation because it directly affects people’s lives. And above all, it should be accessible for everyone, including the medical staff. It is vital to especially focus on the elderly and the disabled when it comes to accessibility of face masks. If a new system is designed to deliver supplies more safely with high accessibility, we will be able to react more wisely when disasters strikes again. One other solution would be to focus on improving the design of face masks in terms of durability and sustainability. One would not need to buy so many new masks, the general mask used in Korea is disposable. The situation would improve if the masks were designed to last for a week and were able to be washed after that so it could be used again and it goes into a life cycle process. If this were to be implemented, it would solve a lot of problems with the lack of this product and also improve its position within sustainability matters. These suggestions are possible only when the government actively supports the mask industry. The government could encourage manufacturers to develop their production and collaborate experts from various fields with benefits. Moreover, workers’ rights and a sufficient supply of raw materials should be guaranteed.
Individual right and freedom is also important and should be guaranteed. So we should have a balance between individual freedom and national intervention, which are both valuable. This crisis showed the weakness of Korean mask production and the system, whilst it showed room for further development. It is time to change the perception of the mask and move forward.
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