THE ASAHI SHIMBUN
July 28, 2020 at 18:30 JST
Chizuko Torii, right, and Akiko Maeda in Nagoya receive more than 30,000 cloth face masks in about a month after calling for donation of unwanted ones sent from the government on Facebook. The women sent the masks to a charity organization in the Philippines and other places. (Provided by Akiko Maeda)
The government plans to deliver an additional 80 million cloth face masks to care facilities around Japan, a policy met with the same derision seen over the first batch of “Abenomasks.”
The extra masks will be sent to nursing care homes, nurseries and other facilities to protect against novel coronavirus infections, health ministry sources said.
They stem in part from a health ministry order for around 58 million masks from nine contractors, including Itochu Corp., on June 22, when the mask shortage had already abated, according to contracts obtained by The Asahi Shimbun.
The order also came two days after the completion of delivery of the Abenomasks, named after the prime minister, to all households in Japan.
Some of those targeted for delivery of the additional masks said they do not need them because stores have had an ample supply for quite some time.
Others in the health care field expressed familiar complaints that the washable and reusable masks are too small and uncomfortable.
But the ministry plans to continue distributing these masks to workers and residents of nursing care homes and similar facilities as well as staff at day care centers, kindergartens and after-school clubs for pupils until they receive about seven masks each.
“Delivery of cloth face masks is fairly effective in reducing demand for masks in general, and we are still in a situation where we cannot necessarily say there are enough supplies to meet demand in the country,” a ministry official said.
In late March, when face masks were in short supply, the government started distributing cloth masks to nursing care facilities, day care centers, kindergartens and other places as part of its COVID-19 countermeasures.
It also began sending two cloth face masks to each household in the country.
The program and the masks quickly became the target of criticism and ridicule.
Some of the masks sent to pregnant women contained mold or were contaminated with insects. And overall, the masks were unpopular among the public due to their small size.
The distribution of the masks to all households ended in June, but the ministry ordered millions more. Their materials and shape are the same as those for the Abenomasks.
The Asahi Shimbun obtained all 37 written contracts the health ministry has signed so far with contractors for the government’s mask-distribution project.
The contracts and other data obtained from sources showed that about 287 million cloth face masks were distributed or ordered, and around 50.7 billion yen ($480 million) was spent for the project.
The spending amount includes an estimated 10.7 billion yen in administrative costs for delivering the masks by mail, setting up and operating call centers and inspecting the products.
There was no bidding process for any of the contracts.
About 130 million of the 287 million masks were sent to households at a cost of 26 billion yen, while around 24.7 billion yen was spent to deliver roughly 157 million masks to nursing care homes and other facilities.
By mid-April, about 20 million masks had already been delivered to the targets of the new mask campaign. In late June, the government started sending about 40 million masks to them.
The ministry official said the government wants to deliver the masks “as quickly as possible” since roughly 80 million masks have yet to be sent, excluding those for pregnant women.
The official said the ministry does not plan to place additional orders for cloth face masks “at this point.”
The chief director of an organization that operates a day care business in the Chugoku region said the masks sent from the government in early April were simply given to users of the organization’s facilities who wanted them.
“What we need is constantly changing, just like relief supplies delivered to victims of a disaster,” the 60-year-old leader said. “The government has not been able to deal with such changes in demand at all.”
A 44-year-old nurse who provides home-visiting care in Kita-Kyushu said the masks are essentially useless for the job.
“We cannot use the cloth face masks delivered from the government when providing nursing care because they are small and do not fit our faces,” the nurse said. “It’s unthinkable to wash and reuse the masks for a medical setting, so I won’t use them even if I receive them.”
In an Asahi Shimbun opinion poll conducted on June 20 and 21, only 15 percent of respondents said the masks sent to each household were “useful,” while 81 percent said the opposite.
“The government does not seem to have given enough consideration to cost-effectiveness and effective execution of face mask delivery in formulating the policy,” said Masashi Nakano, a professor of public administration at Kobe Gakuin University and a former health ministry career bureaucrat. “It is a very ad hoc policy.”
(This article was written by Eiji Zakoda, Kei Fujiyama, Ayako Suzuki and Satoru Eguchi.)
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