There has been plenty of debate and questions surrounding the use of masks since the coronavirus pandemic started. Should we wear them or not? What type of mask works the best? Should countries make them compulsory? But even as a general scientific consensus has emerged that masks are one of the most effective tools at our disposal to prevent the virus from spreading, countries faced another problem: how to obtain, produce and control the millions of masks necessary for their health workers and population.
Many countries had to deal with severe shortages with cargos of masks being sold to the highest bidder. For some, which found themselves unable to produce masks quickly and in large volumes, the manufacturing of these protective products has become an example of the shortfalls of outsourcing, while others took this opportunity to expand their market.
After more than six months since the beginning of the pandemic in China, here's how three countries are currently dealing with the manufacturing of masks:
France - Overproduction: The textile industry finds itself with tons of cloth masks as orders have almost come to a halt, causing real difficulties to some of the 400 companies which invested hastily to respond to the government's call, according to Les Echos.
An ironic situation considering the country was facing a severe shortage at the beginning of the pandemic. According to the French Union of the textile industries, around 40 millions masks are still waiting for buyers at the moment and some companies, which mobilized all their workers for weeks to produce masks, now find themselves with the equivalent for several years of raw material stocks, that will certainly fall in value.
But why can't they find any buyers? Because French citizens and companies tend to buy cheaper single-use paper masks from Asia, Le Parisien reports. The latter cost between 0.55 and 0.60 euros compared to 3 to 5 euros for a French cloth mask. But in the end, the latter is more cost-efficient and environmentally sound, as it is reusable. The government is currently working to find a way to promote the Made in France masks, as well as to quickly find an outlet to distribute the surplus.
A worker demonstrates non-woven filter fabric used to make face masks in a factory in Zhongli, Taiwan —Photo: Lin Yen Ting
Turkey - Exporter: As soon as the virus started to spread worldwide at the beginning of 2020, Turkey was sought out to produce masks on a grand scale. According to data from the World Trade Organization, Turkey is one the world's largest textile exporting countries and had therefore sufficient raw material stocks to meet the high demand.
China ordered 200 million masks from Turkish medical firms in January, according to the Anadolu Agency and later on, several EU countries requested the protective products as well, a textile firm even receiving a one-billion mask order.
A Turkish protective gear factory, which was founded in less a month during the pandemic, claims to be the world's largest mask production facility that doesn't use imported material. The company is currently repurposing three ships to use them as floating masks factories that could each produced around 500 million face masks during their sea voyages to sell to countries in North and South America,Hürriyet reports.
Finland - Self-Sufficiency: At the end of May, the government announced that three Finnish companies had started to produce protective materials such as masks and respirators, following an initiative launched by the Ministry of Employment and Economy to start domestic production, Yle reports.
Inside a medical mask production workshop in Tangshan, Hebei Province, China —Photo: Yang Shiyao
At the beginning of the pandemic, Finland faced major shortages of protective equipment and had to fight with other countries on the international market, as prices were soaring. For Minister of Labour Tuula Haatainen, the pandemic "has exposed the vulnerability of international supply chains and highlighted the importance of domestic production."
The government hopes that domestic manufacturing will cover the needs of health and social workers, who, according to its estimates, require around one million masks everyday, News Now Finland reports. Though masks are not compulsory for Finnish citizens, the country's authorities say they want to be prepared for a possible second wave of the virus in autumn.
Taiwan - Setting Standards: Since the crisis began in neighboring China, rival island nation Taiwan has been at the cutting-edge on controlling the spread of COVID-19 — and an innovative policy for distributing and tracking the use of masks gets some of the credit. It included a name-based rationing system for face masks in the beginning, and once production was accelerated, made masks widely available in convenience stores and through an app.
And now, the country continues to reap the benefits, having virtually halted the spread of the virus. Taiwan News reports that the government has further eased restrictions, including allowing passengers on trains and airplanes to take off their masks once they've passed temperature controls. Still, China Times reports an estimated 90% of passengers on mass transit were still wearing masks.