China backs free trade in masks despite coronavirus-induced shortages

Workers produce protective face masks at a factory in Qingdao in China's eastern Shandong province on Feb 6, 2020.

China, the world's biggest maker of medical masks, signalled on Thursday that it would not limit exports of the product, saying it would abide by free trade and market principles.

Li Xingqian, director of the foreign trade department at the Ministry of Commerce, said China had not banned the export of masks or related materials during the coronavirus epidemic, despite other countries imposing such limits.

"Masks are freely traded products… companies can trade them in line with market principles," Li said.

Li's statement came as various other economies, including South Korea, Taiwan, Germany and Russia, restricted exports of medical equipment over fears of shortages to cope with the epidemic, which has spread to more than 70 countries.

His comments pointed to Beijing's growing confidence in its mask production capacity, after severe shortages in late January and early February.

As of Saturday, China's daily output of masks, including surgical masks and medical N95 masks, was 116 million units, or 12 times the output at the start of February, the country's top economic planning agency said on Monday.

The increase in supply has allowed the country to channel some of the products to South Korea and Japan but Li said the capacity still might not be enough for China's 1.4 billion people.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also pointed to shortages elsewhere, saying the world needed 89 million medical masks, 76 million examination gloves and 1.6 million goggles each month for health workers.

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said a shortage of protective equipment was leaving doctors, nurses and other frontline health workers "dangerously ill-equipped".

"The WHO has shipped nearly half a million sets of personal protective equipment to 27 countries, but supplies are rapidly depleting," Tedros said.

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On Thursday, South Korea joined a growing number of countries to impose a full ban over exports of protective masks amid possible shortages.

Li said China could "understand" why other countries were implementing trade restrictions.

"[We] also hope that the relevant countries can respect the opinions of WHO experts, continue to give full understanding and firm support to China, treat the epidemic objectively and rationally, and not take excessive trade restrictions," he said.

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This article was first published in South China Morning Post.