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The facts behind the shortage of face masks
Published on: Sunday, March 29, 2020
By: Dr Steven K W Chow
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MORE than 90pc of the three-ply face masks used by Malaysia’s hospitals and clinics are imported mainly from China due to the cheaper price. 

Malaysia also imports these three-ply masks from Taiwan, Korea, India and Thailand.

Malaysia has four manufacturers of face masks. 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 Covid-19 pandemic, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea and Indonesia have all imposed an export ban on their masks to reserve them for their own use. While China has denied banning the export of masks and raw materials, regular Malaysian importers were unable to get new supplies since the recent Chinese New Year holidays. 

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

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

Since the end of January 2020, the private sector has been unable to get 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 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 difficulties securing the raw materials, especially the filter layer for the three-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 increased their cost tremendously.

The previous ceiling price of 80 sen per piece had deterred the local manufacturers from selling their products in the local market, as the cost price per piece was above the previous ceiling price. Selling their mask to Malaysians above the ceiling price will invite prosecution.

Already, some pharmacies and at least one clinic have been fined between RM10,000 and RM15,000 for selling each mask at RM1 (a mere 20 sen above the ceiling price stated by the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry). The past ceiling price of 80 sen per piece was a disincentive to sell in the local market in view of better prices overseas.

The enactment of the ban on the export of masks effective from March 20 and the local ceiling price of RM2 per piece might 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 increasing in view of the current worldwide shortage.

The gazetted ceiling price as of March 20 is as follows:

- One-ply face mask: RM0.15/unit @ RM7.00/box;

- Two-ply face mask: RM0.20/unit @ RM10.00/box;

- Three-ply face mask: RM2/unit @ RM100.00/box; and

- N95 face mask: RM6/unit

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

Dr Steven K. W. Chow


Federation of Private Medical Practitioners’ 

Associations, Malaysia


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