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VUSI MONA: The facemask & its impact on international power relations

opinion

In the fight against the coronavirus, the facemask has become the most visible symbol of the deadly pandemic, worn by millions of people around the globe every day.

On whether we should wear it or not, locally the message has been somewhat unclear. Yesterday the Minister of Health referred to the facemask as part of the arsenal we needed in our combat against the coronavirus.

In his television address, the President also mentioned that in the next few weeks planes from China would be arriving full of facemasks and other medical supplies.

Whether to be worn by medical staff, those with normal flu, the infected and the general public, one thing is certain: we will need facemasks.

The problem is they are simply not there. A relative bought one (it was the only one left) at a chemist yesterday for R50! The economic principle of demand and supply has already kicked in. I doubt if regulators will stem the tide.

The world rolls on this principle - in peacetime and in wartime. And it does not matter what kind of an enemy you are fighting - whether a virus or humans in fighter jets. When demand exceeds supply, prices go up, so I was taught in Economics 101. The whole thing was based on the teachings of one Adam Smith, a Scottish economist and philosopher. But I digress.

I personally tried a few weeks ago to source facemasks through my friend Robin in Guangzhou, China, to no avail. Robin is my guide when I’m in Guangzhou for trade and shopping. He said all of the country’s supply were being sold to China’s government and there were none for export. He did expect the export ban to be lifted soon.

China reportedly made half the world’s masks before the coronavirus emerged there. The Chinese government has been undertaking a massive mobilisation of wartime proportions to expand its output since then. Daily production is said to have increased from about 10 million before the coronavirus outbreak to 116 million now.

More than 2,500 companies in China are said to have started making facemasks, among them are some of the country's powerful state-owned enterprises and technology companies.

iPhone assembler Foxconn has re-purposed some of its production lines for facemasks. The maker of China’s J-20 stealth fighter jet, Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, has reportedly also re-purposed part of its factory to design a mask production line. Talk about agility.

China understands the economic (and dare I say, political) power relations of the facemask and other key medical supplies during this global crisis. It has ramped up production and its companies are responding with a kind of agility that most countries can’t. To build the machine that can manufacture facemasks would take a sophisticated country like the US at least six months.

In the meantime, we are all looking up (literally and figuratively) to China to bail us out. Indeed, the Chinese government has begun some shipments to Iran, South Korea, Japan and Italy as part of its goodwill packages. We ourselves are waiting for our own cargo to arrive, the President has alluded, all branded: Made in China.

Who ever thought that such a cheap and disposable item as a facemask could one day shift international power relations? It points to a totally new world order that is emerging.

Vusi Mona is a communications practitioner.