Coronavirus: Face-mask production cranked up in Taiwan to ease shortfall

Pupils, some wearing masks, sit behind partition boards as they attend classes at Dajia Elemental School in Taipei, Taiwan, on March 3, 2020. The school prepared the boards, made with PP Corrugated Board, to prevent infection of Covid-19 by saliva when pupils talk, cough, sneeze or have lunch in the classroom. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Mask factories in Taiwan have been operating 24/7 for more than a month, since the island detected its first case of the coronavirus in January, but the masks still sell out at most pharmacies as soon as they open.

Mask production has increased to 8.2 million pieces a day from seven million a day last month.

The government had banned mask exports in January, and the Central Epidemic Command Centre on Monday promised that local surgical mask manufacturers will be able to produce 13 million masks each day by late this month or early next month.

Before the outbreak, the majority of the masks that Taiwanese used were imported, with up to 93 per cent from China, which is now facing a mask shortage.

Currently, Taiwan does not import masks and is ramping up production to supply its own needs.

"I think the government reacted quickly (when the outbreak began) to ban mask exports, because they know outbreak prevention is a battle," Mr Lawrence Huang, 35, told The Straits Times. He is the chief executive of Sumeasy Enterprise, one of Taiwan's five largest mask manufacturers.

Before the outbreak, his factory produced about 200,000 to 300,000 masks each day.

"Now, we're making 500,000 to 800,000 a day, depending on how well the machinery is functioning," said Mr Huang, whose factory was one of the first to be approached by the government to increase production.

Sumeasy Enterprise installed new production lines late last month.

Mr Huang's entire crew of 60 - including 10 hired recently - have been working 12-hour shifts since Jan 28 to keep the machines humming round the clock.

"They're paid for overtime work, but my employees have been eager to work because they know they're helping Taiwan to combat the outbreak during a difficult time," he said.

The government last month also ordered 60 new mask production lines for companies. Another 30 will be built this month for next month's production.

To make sure all masks produced are accounted for at the end of each day and that they are not hoarded to be sold on black markets, the government dispatched officials from the Ministry of Economic Affairs' Industrial Development Bureau, local police officers and military personnel to supervise each factory's mask production. Soldiers also help with the packaging.

"Taiwan's government has listed the surgical mask as a kind of 'war reserve stock' and, while not everyone is able to get one, at least there's constant production going on," said Mr Huang.

While Taiwanese still line up early each day at their local pharmacies and retailers for masks, the process has been made easier with real-time maps produced by civilian engineers and the National Health Insurance Administration that show how many masks each retailer has in stock.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2020, with the headline Coronavirus: Face-mask production cranked up in Taiwan to ease shortfall. Subscribe