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'Face mask diplomacy' benefits Chinese billionaires as Covid-19 spreads

The foundation of the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has delivered 5.4 million masks, just over 1 million test kits as well as tens of thousands of protective suits in Ethiopia, this Sunday March 22.
The foundation of the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma has delivered 5.4 million masks, just over 1 million test kits as well as tens of thousands of protective suits in Ethiopia, this Sunday March 22. REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

As the coronavirus continues its global spread far beyond the outbreak epicentre of Hubei province, thousands of factories in China have turned to a new and very profitable export market: face masks.

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With the shift of the Covid-19 epicentre from China via Europe to the United States, Beijing has re-modelled itself as the world’s saviour as local infection figures decline to almost zero. 

With 85,612 confirmed cases, the US now tops the list of most-affected countries, with China second, with only 55 new cases, all except one coming from outside the country. As a result, China has now closed its borders to all incoming foreigners. 

Italy is third in terms of confirmed cases (80,589) but by far number one in terms of deaths (8,215), followed by Spain (4,365). China is only third in this ranking with 3,292 casualties. In total, health authorities around the world counted 540,847 cases and 24,294 deaths on 26 March.

Out of face masks

With infection rates increasing worldwide, demand for face masks has soared.

Pharmacies in many countries were completely out of face masks by the end of January.

Some governments, like the French, have insisted that wearing face masks is not absolutely necessary, prioritising the supply of protective equipment to medical personnel dealing directly with coronavirus patients.

But the panicked public kept on demanding masks, and Chinese manufacturers jumped in.

China has sent millions of masks to its European Belt and Road Initiative partners, the Czech Republic and Italy, followed by Serbia, and later also to France and other regions hit by the virus.

Face mask extravaganza

China’s richest man, Alibaba wholesales founder Jack Ma, jumped into action, providing two million masks to be distributed across European countries. 

And China’s top 5G provider and telecom giant, Huawei, under attack by the US, accused of cooperating with Beijing’s government, has offered to donate large amounts of personal protection equipment to Ireland.

Ma pledged a total of 1.1 million coronavirus test kits, 6 million masks and 60,000 medical protective suits and face shields to the African continent. Earlier this month, Ethiopia received 1.5 million test kits, 5.4 million face masks and tons of other medical supplies.

Huge gap in demand

Other manufactures have jumped on the face mask bandwagon.

In the first two months of the year, no fewer than 8,950 new manufacturers started producing masks in China, according to business data platform Tianyancha.

Most sought after are the “N95” masks. The “N” in the name is derived from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health”, while “95” stands for the ability of the mask to filter out 95 percent of particles that are 0.3 mµ in diameter – that an average virus measures only 0,1 mµ and can therefore find its way through even the fine filter of an N95 mask does not seem to deter customers. 

N95 face mask
N95 face mask © Wikimedia commons

"A mask machine is a real cash printer," Shi Xinghui, sales manager of an N95 mask machine company in Dongguan city, south-eastern Guangdong province, was quoted as saying by the French news agency, AFP. 

"Foreign virus"

"Producing 60,000 or 70,000 masks a day is equivalent to printing money," he says.

While bringing profit to China’s entrepreneurs, providing masks to Covid-19-hit regions around the world also helps Beijing to erase the bad image it had since the outbreak of the virus.

Since January, China and the US have been engaged in an increasingly nasty war of words. US President Donald Trump has continued to refer to Covid-19 as a “Chinese” or “foreign” virus and US diplomats have reproached Beijing's “lack of transparency,” blaming the Chinese authorities for “hiding the facts” until it was too late to prevent the global spread of the virus. 

Beijing hit back, claiming that the virus, in fact, originated in the United States, and maintaining that China now has the expertise to help other countries survive the pandemic. 

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