Fear of the coronavirus known as Covid-19 has led to a global run on sales of face masks.
Many businesses are sold out, while others are limiting how many a customer can buy and Amazon is policing its website, trying to make sure sellers do not exploit panicked buyers.
In South Korea, hundreds lined up to buy masks from a discount store. Rumours that toilet paper and napkins could be used as masks have emptied store shelves in Asia of paper goods over the past few weeks.
People trying to protect themselves from the outbreak and medical centres are facing shortages.
The shortages are being attributed not just to high demand, but to disruptions in supply: An outsized share of the world’s surgical masks are made in China. But even factories there that have ramped up production say they are hard pressed to meet local demand. The government has taken over manufacturers, and exports have plunged.
“Before the outbreak of the epidemic, we used to export 600,000 to 700,000 surgical masks a month, but now the amount is zero,” said David Peng, manager of Ningbo Buy Best International Trading Co in Ningbo, south of Shanghai. The company’s dozen or so suppliers in Hubei, near the centre of the outbreak, have been ordered to prioritise government orders.
Apart from shortages of workers, manufacturers say they are struggling to get enough raw materials to make the masks. Tony Zhou, sales manager for Suzhou Sanical Protective Products Manufacturing Co, said his company is asking overseas customers if masks can be delivered a few months later.
On Amazon, the best-selling item in its health and household section is a pack of three cotton masks. A listing for 100 disposable masks said it would arrive at shoppers’ doorsteps in April or May.