by Ker Zheng
China is struggling to produce enough disposable face masks as it continues to fight off the coronavirus.
Workers are starting to go back to work, but shortages of masks are prevalent throughout the country.
We take a look at what's going on and what's hampering China's efforts to ramp up production.
China Needs Roughly 530 Million Face Masks a Day
Consider this: China's manufacturing and services industries employ roughly 530 million people, and proper preventive procedures advocate that people change their disposable face masks once a day. This means that China could potentially need 530 million face masks a day.
Even if services industry workers could continue to work at home and this number was shrunk to include just manufacturing + health care + essential transportation workers, 238 million people would still need face masks on a daily basis.
According to the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, China was producing just 8 million masks a day, as of January 25th. A week later, this number grew to reach 14.8 million.
Yet, a representative from the China Textile Commerce Association mentioned that China could produce up to 180 million masks a day by the end of February.
Could China really ramp up production that quickly? We take a deeper look below.
What is China Doing to Speed Up Mask Production?
Much of the increase in production is coming from China’s state-owned enterprises.
Seven state-run enterprises - Norinco Group, China National Machinery Group, Xinxing Cathay International Group, Sinopec, COFCO Group, China General Technology Group and ChemChina - are ramping up daily production capacity to 65,000 tons of resin, or enough raw material to produce a whopping 160 million face masks.
And China's private sector is also stepping to the cause. Producing a face mask takes only half a second, and it's not particularly difficult to shift production to focus on masks.
Shenzhen-based electric car company BYD announced that by the end of February, it will be ramping up mask production to reach 5 million per day, and production of disinfectant to 50,000 bottles per day.
Foxconn’s production lines will be able to produce 5 million masks a day, and Shanghai-based auto company SAIC Motor will be able to produce 1.7 million per day by the end of the month.
In short, it seems that China's manufacturing sector does have the capabilities to meet demand.
What are the Obstacles?
But there are other factors that make it difficult to produce masks for such a large population.
One challenge is obtaining the permit to produce medical-related equipment, which companies need to apply for. However the government has made it easier for new companies to obtain this permit, speeding up the approval process.
In January, there were only 3000 registered companies that were in the business of producing face masks, protective gear, thermometers, and other relevant medical devices. But since then, another 3,600 companies stepped up to the cause to help produce more.
Another challenge is disinfecting the masks. While a mask only takes half of a second to produce, for the disinfectant to work properly it has to be applied for 7-14 days.
This means that newly produced masks take approximately two weeks to be ready to go to market. Not to mention that the masks then have to be distributed around the country.
Overseas Imports are Helping, but Logistics Remains an Issue
From January 24 to February 11, total imports of health-related materials (including face masks, protective suits, goggles, etc.) reached 870 million units, or 2.84 billion RMB worth of goods.
Face masks accounted for the bulk of these imports, with 730 million units coming in through customs during that time frame.
But one issue is the increasing unavailability of flights to and from China.
All three of the big three airlines in the US (United Airlines, Delta Airlines, American Airlines), have suspended flights to China, and other airlines are following suit.
And as more countries (notably South Korea, Japan) continue to contract the disease, their governments have placed restrictions on face mask exports, diverting supply for their own use.
1. As China's population goes back to work, it faces the challenge of supplying hundreds of millions of people with disposable face masks.
2. While producing masks is a relatively simple process, obtaining the right permits and disinfecting them properly is less straight forward.
3. Both state-run companies and the private sector have converted production lines to help produce masks. China customs is also seeing a mass influx of medical equipment imports, having imported over 730 million face masks in the period between January 24 and February 11.