In Japan, where wearing surgical masks is common, it is not a surprise that they quickly disappeared from store shelves once the coronavirus emerged.
On April 1st, Shinzo Abe announced an “extremely effective measure” “to deal with the sudden increase in demand for face masks”—which was to distribute two face masks to each of the 50 million or so households in Japan.
Now, Japanese Prime Minister Abe is facing a public backlash after saying that the government would distribute two reusable cloth face masks per household amid growing concern over medical shortages as the country faces a worsening coronavirus outbreak.
The anger comes as Abe resisted calls on Wednesday to declare a state of emergency, saying that the use of such powers was not imminent. A declaration of a state of emergency would allow prefectural governors to send out a stronger message when it comes to urging the public to stay at home.
Abe said the provision of cloth masks to the worst-hit areas “will be helpful in responding to the rapidly increasing demand.” However, critics doubt this mask giveaway will solve shortages, nor will this sudden decision fight the novel coronavirus. Even some government officials are skeptical of this plan.
The distribution will kick off later this month, and each household with a registered postal address will receive the masks through the post–part of a wider coronavirus economic package that the government is rolling out.
Two-mask pledge met online with derision.
Although some netizens expressed gratitude for the two-mask plan, many felt the move was lackluster and would not go into effect fast enough to have a chance at curbing the spread of the virus.
People pointed to World Health Organization guidelines that said cloth masks “are not recommended under any circumstance” in fighting the coronavirus, and that it is a waste of tax money.
Proposal to send two masks to each household attracted outrage and mockery online and the hashtag “Abe’s mask” and “screw your two masks” made it to the number-one trending topic on Japanese Twitter. People are asking the whereabouts of the cash handouts other governments across the world are planning. In contrast, others dubbed the policy “Abenomask policy” as memes showing “Sazaesan” characters sharing one mask between four family members popped up online.
— 北村ヂン (@punxjk) April 1, 2020
Another netizen hailed the masks in a mock advertisement for a “Different Dimension Abenomask,” riffing on the language used by Abe-appointed Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda in his monetary policy. The masks would “shut out the cries of the people,” it said.
— HOM55 (@HON5437) April 2, 2020
A 44-year-old woman in Tokyo who lives with six other family members told the Asahi Shimbun, “What will we do with just two?” “Although I do not want to ask for as many face masks as family members, I think there is something wrong about giving the same number to all households.”
Kenji Seino, a nonprofit organization Tenohasi’s secretary-general, told the Asahi Shumbun that he is worried about whether the homeless or those who regularly spend nights at internet cafes will receive the face masks. “There are people who not only do not have face masks but are in an environment that does not allow them to remain at home,” Seino said.
The Airin district in Osaka’s Nishinari Ward is known for its flophouses and a large number of day labourers who do not have a regular address they can call home.
A 49-year-old man who works for an organization that provides support to labourers in Osaka who do not have a regular address they can call home said, “It appears to me to be only a ploy by Prime Minister Abe since it is a policy that will not even give everyone in Japan the face masks.”
Many are calling for government compensation for businesses that have had to suspend operations because of the coronavirus.
He said the government should think up a framework to ensure that each individual receives the face masks.
“I cannot understand the logic behind two face masks for each household,” the man said. “It is a pathetic impromptu measure.”