Unmasking the story behind the shortage

More than 90% of the 3-ply face masks used by Malaysia’s hospitals and clinics are imported mainly from China, due to the cheaper price.

Other countries where Malaysia also imports these 3-ply masks include Taiwan, Korea, India and Thailand.

Malaysia has four face mask manufacturers. Similar to the surgical glove industry, due to its higher quality and price, minimal to zero support has been given by the government to the manufacturers to sustain their operations all this while.

Their masks are mainly exported to high-income, developed countries, with minimal sales to Malaysia’s private clinics.

Due to the current Covid-19 pandemic, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea and Indonesia have ordered an export ban of their masks to reserve them for their own country’s use.

While China has denied banning the export of masks and raw materials, regular Malaysian importers have been unable to get new supplies from them since the recent Chinese New Year holidays.

The local demand in China in fact had already overwhelmed the production capacity of all mask manufacturers in China.

India had initially banned the export of masks, but lifted the ban on Feb 8. To date, no fresh stocks of masks from India are available in the Malaysian market.

Since the end of January 2020, the private sector has been unable to obtain further supplies of the masks that were imported into Malaysia by the two regular suppliers.

Similarly, we believe that out of four local manufacturers, the production of masks by the biggest two manufacturers was not designated for sale and distribution to the private sector.

So what is left for the private clinics and their patients? The local manufacturers are also struggling to fulfil their regular overseas customers’ contracts as they have difficulty securing the raw materials, especially the filter layer for the 3-ply surgical masks.

With the inadequate raw material supply from China, some local manufacturers had to source from Europe at a much higher price, which in turn had increased their cost tremendously.

The previous ceiling price of RM0.80 per piece has deterred the local manufacturers from selling their production in the local market as the cost price per piece is above the previous ceiling price.

Selling their masks to Malaysians above the ceiling price will invite prosecution.

Already, some pharmacies and at least one clinic have been fined RM10,000 to RM15,000 for selling each mask at RM1 per piece (a mere 20 sen above the ceiling price stated by the domestic trade and consumer affairs ministry).

The past ceiling price of RM0.80 per piece was a disincentive to sell the masks in the local market in view of better prices overseas.

Today, with the enactment of the ban on the export of masks, effective March 20, and the local ceiling price of RM2 per piece, it might seem to give temporary relief to local private sector demand.

This is true only if they have available supplies.

Of course, this will further change as the cost of raw materials will keep going up in view of the current worldwide shortage.

The present gazetted ceiling price (as on March 20) is as follows:

  • 1-ply face mask: RM0.15/unit @ RM7.00/box
  • 2-ply face mask: RM0.20/unit @ RM10.00/box
  • 3-ply face mask: RM2/unit @ RM100.00/box
  • N95 face mask: RM6/unit.

This is according to the Customs (Prohibition of Exports) (Amendment) (No. 2) Order 2020 and Price Control and Anti-Profiteering (determination of maximum price) (No. 2) order 2020.

As at press time, our doctors have confirmed that they are still not able to obtain any ready stock of masks from local suppliers.

Dr Steven KW Chow is president of the Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ Associations, Malaysia.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.