Mask prices in Egypt skyrocket over coronavirus fears

Ahmed Morsy , Thursday 13 Feb 2020

Al-Ahram Weekly reports on Egypt’s medical mask-making industry and the hike in their prices following the outbreak of the coronavirus worldwide

A file photo of a woman wears a face mask on Cairo's underground metro (photo: Reuters)

The coronavirus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan, had up until 11 February killed 1,016 people with 42,638 confirmed cases in China alone. Fears of infection have stimulated huge demand for protective masks, including in Egypt.

“We have a sufficient stock of masks in Egypt, and we have adequate production. The same applies to antiseptics and detergents. We are not suffering any shortage,” Egypt’s Minister of Health Hala Zayed said on 3 February during a telephone interview with TV talk show host Amr Adib.

Zayed added that “if there is a surplus in production, we export abroad.”

According to Ali Ouf, head of the pharmaceuticals division of Egypt’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce, the rush for masks has prompted a Chinese merchant to request the import of 145 million masks from a medical supplies factory in Egypt.

In that context, Health Ministry Spokesman Khaled Megahed said on 5 February in a telephone interview with Sherif Amer of MBC Masr that “the ministry is ready to supply China with any quantity of masks it needs to prevent the coronavirus.”

Megahed echoed the comments by the health minister. “We have a strategic and sufficient stock of masks, enough to export,” Megahed said.

He added that Egypt has already sent medical supplies, including masks, to China as a gift to the Chinese people.

Earlier this month the ministry provided China with 10 tons of preventive medical items including masks and alcoholic antiseptics on a plane that was sent to bring back Egyptians from Wuhan as part of Egypt’s support to the Chinese people given the deeply-rooted and strong ties between both countries. More supplies could have been sent were it not for the plane’s capacity, Megahed stated.

Cabinet Spokesman Nader Saad denied news of Egypt sending masks to China. Speaking to TV talk show host Ahmed Moussa,  Saad said “Egypt produces 60 million masks per year, a quantity equivalent to what China produces in three days… China’s mask shortage will not be resolved with Egyptian masks,” he said.

China alone produces around half of all masks made globally, 20 million masks each day, or more than seven billion a year. However, its production has been cut to around 10 million per day, due to its New Year holiday as well as the impact of the virus itself.

According to BBC, China bought 220 million face masks from South Korea between 24 January and 2 February.

Since the beginning of February, Chinese authorities have removed tariffs and duties on imported medical supplies.

The US firm 3M, a major producer of high-quality face masks, says it is making increasing numbers at facilities around the world in order to meet demand.  “We are ramping up production, including in the US, Asia and Europe, as quickly as possible,” Jennifer Ehrlich of 3M told the BBC.

Head of the pharmaceuticals division of Egypt’s Federation of Chambers of Commerce told Al-Ahram Weekly that Egypt has 10 medical supplies factories that produce 60 million masks annually.

“The local production of masks in Egypt is not enough to meet local consumption, and the country’s main dependence was on importing from China. Prior to the Chinese crisis Egypt used to import 120 million masks annually from China to meet local consumption which is about 180 million masks,” Ouf said.

Ouf added that the Chinese order to import 145 million masks from an Egyptian factory had been declined because the production capacity of the factory cannot meet such amount, and even the total annual manufacturing output of protective masks in Egypt doesn’t come closer to this quantity. The maximum that these factories can produce if they operate at full capacity is 120 million masks, Ouf said.

He, however, said that the local market still has a sufficient stock of masks until another exporter replaces China to supply the local market with the required quantities. Meanwhile, Egypt is looking for alternate suppliers of protective masks other than China, including Vietnam, India, Indonesia and Korea, Ouf noted.

Cabinet Spokesman Saad did not deny the increase in the cost of medical masks in the local market. “The prices of masks may have increased because of the unjustified rush to buy them,” he said.

Saad urged Egyptians not to rush to buy masks for no reason, stressing that Egypt is free of coronavirus cases and that the domestic production of masks is sufficient. “Hence, no need to worry.”

On the ground, the Weekly not only observed a steady rise in the price of masks, but also a shortage in pharmacies. It also noticed a variation in their prices from one outlet to another.

“We have limited quantities of masks available compared to the growing demand,” Mahmoud Helmi, a branch manager of a pharmacy chain located in Giza’s Mohandessin district.

Among the various kinds of masks available are those locally produced which protect the respiratory system from dust and wind, and the imported N95 mask, which offers higher protection of the respiratory system.

“The price of the regular locally-produced mask doubled from LE2 to LE4, while the imported N95 mask rose to LE15 from LE8,” Helmi told the Weekly.

Elsewhere, in Cairo’s Nasr City, another pharmacist who preferred to speak on condition of anonymity also confirmed the shortage of masks in the market and said the N95 mask reached as high as LE60, while the regular mask is sold for LE2.

“The other day, somebody asked for 2,000 packs, each containing 50 imported masks. They were willing to pay any price. Even if I had that number of masks, I would not have sold them to him. Although there were no instructions from the Ministry of Health to limit the quantity sold to each customer, I ordered the pharmacists in the branch not to sell more than five pieces per person in order to cover the largest number of people,” Helmi said.

A supplier of medical materials told the Weekly on condition of anonymity that “merchants are now buying most of the masks on the market to export them and reap huge profits.” That, he said, led to a 100 per cent increase, or more, in the price of medical masks in the Egyptian market.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Lucrative market for masks

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