Photo/Illutration Tens of millions of cloth face masks dubbed “Abenomasks” in storage (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Tens of millions of reusable cloth face masks that had been languishing in storage since the COVID-19 crisis flared two years ago are finally being distributed by the government after a clamor of requests from the public, local governments and organizations.

The program, the brainchild of Shinzo Abe when he was prime minister, led to much public ridicule after the masks, satirically dubbed “Abenomasks,” first started to be delivered in 2020.

People complained they were too small to offer reasonable protection, were stained or arrived long after they were first needed.

Officials said 83 million masks ended up in storage at huge expense.

But when the health ministry announced free distribution of the cloth face masks, a flood of requests poured in. Ministry officials said April 1 they had begun delivering the face masks to individuals, local governments and facilities that provide care to the elderly.

They said 71 million or so face masks will finally be delivered by the end of May at a cost of around 500 million yen ($4 million).

Officials added that 7.3 million face masks will be recycled rather than be distributed due to defects or because they were never properly checked before initial delivery.

As of the end of January, the ministry had received around 370,000 requests for free distribution of 290 million face masks. But many of the requests were for the face masks to be used for other purposes, such as gauze, handkerchiefs or in nursery beds.

Ministry officials decided to only choose individuals or organizations that intended to use the face masks for their intended purpose.

They said 29.4 million masks will be distributed to about 300,000 individuals and 9.3 million or so to about 1,800 local governments. In addition, about 32.3 million face masks will be mailed to 33,000 or so organizations and care facilities.

Individuals who requested less than 50 face masks will all receive 10 each, while those who asked for 50 or more will receive 100 each.

Local government requests will be met unchallenged.

(This article was written by Yuki Edamatsu and Kai Ichino.)