by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Jiang/WikiCommons/CC

NEW RULES introduced by the Tsai administration to regulate the selling of medical masks are likely to lead to further blowback against the government. Under the new regulations, individuals buying masks will need to show their National Health Insurance (NHI) card and they will be limited to purchasing two masks per seven days, though the price of masks will be dropped to 5 NT. Convenience stores will no longer sell masks, starting on February 4th, which will instead only be sold at NHI-approved pharmacies, and with different days for individuals with odd or even national healthcare numbers to buy masks.

Previous rules for the purchase of masks specified that individuals could only purchase three masks per purchase, with a standard price of 8 NT per mask in a pack of three in order to prevent price gouging. Individuals traveling abroad were limited to bringing fifty masks out of the country. Likewise, a one month ban on exports of of N95 masks was imposed by the government, with the government releasing 4 to 6 million masks onto the market per day, and daily production of face masks increased from 790,000 to 930,000.

Video by Premier Su Tseng-chang announcing the new change in measures

Such measures did not, however, prevent long lines for buying masks, price gouging at some stores—or even masks being used as crane claw store prizes—or disruption at convenience stores due to customers frequently inquiring about purchasing masks. This is probably one of the reasons for the change in regulations. Chaos regarding the purchase of masks at convenience stores points to how convenience stores are major nodal points for the distribution of goods and services in Taiwan.

Another major reason for the shift seems to be in order to address criticisms of the DPP’s handling of the Coronavirus from the KMT. The shift in regulations was touted as a bipartisan measure, the Executive Yuan citing that the suggestion for the shift originally came from New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi of the KMT.

In particular, the DPP is currently pursuing legal action against members of the pan-Blue camp that have circulated disinformation about the DPP’s handling of the Coronavirus outbreak, specifically pertaining to claims that the DPP is hoarding masks to sell at inflated prices in order to profit. As such, it may not be surprising that the DPP is currently attempting to avoid the public perception that it is politically persecuting the KMT through embracing what is claimed to be a bipartisan political measure.

However, one generally expects that there will be further blowback against the government after the change in regulations, seeing as the government is drastically reducing the supply of masks available for purchase from three masks per purchase for an individual to two masks per week, as well as limiting where masks will be available for purchase. This may add fuel to the fire regarding disinformation efforts claiming that the Tsai administration is hoarding masks and such measures may still not provide for efficient distribution of masks.

One also notes that confusion continues to abound regarding whether medical masks are, in fact, necessary as a prevention measure for the Coronavirus. Through the course of the Coronavirus outbreak, conflicting claims have been observed from government officials regarding the necessity of wearing masks and taking measures to ensure the distribution of masks as well as the claim that masks are only necessary for the sick and not the healthy. It is not impossible that, given the widespread use of medical masks for the sick in Taiwan, that the government simply does not wish to go against the consensus opinion of society in enacting wide-sweeping measures for the sale of masks.

New Taipei city mayor Hou You-yi. Photo credit: Hou You-yi/Facebook

Likewise, concerns have been raised regarding that individuals without national healthcare IDs will be left out of mask distribution. This includes tourists, individuals with less than six months of permanent residency—after which point national health insurance is mandatory for foreigners living and working in Taiwan—and others. Some demographics, such as blue-collar migrant workers, may have less access to national healthcare IDs even when this is stipulated by law—one notes that there has already been controversy regarding migrant workers being denied access to medical masks by their employers.

According to the government, measures for individuals with less than six months living in Taiwan will be forthcoming. However, as with the recent YouBike controversy or with longstanding issues regarding ARC number formatting not being the same as National ID formatting, it would not be surprising if foreigners go overlooked in efforts to combat the Coronavirus.

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