HONG KONG -- The Chinese government is urging companies to ramp up production of face masks to meet surging demand as the new coronavirus continues to spread.
Companies ranging from state-owned carmakers to oil producers are installing production lines as the government aims to raise output by at least 70%. But it will not be easy to meet demand from 1.4 billion people desperate for a measure of protection against infection. Many people complain they cannot get masks anywhere, and it is unclear when the shortage will ease.
According to the government, China can turn out about 20 million face masks a day, nearly half of global demand in normal times.
Beijing has urged companies to suspend operations to prevent the spread of the deadly virus -- except for factories that make masks and protective suits. With workers trickling back from the Lunar New Year holiday, mask production was back at 94% of capacity as of Feb. 11, officials say.
At least six companies, including a joint venture with a foreign company, plan to produce additional 14 million masks a day. Chinese brokerage Huaxi Securities said in a report that it will not be difficult for these companies to produce masks from a technical standpoint.
Electric carmaker BYD plans to start producing masks at its plant in Shenzhen on Monday. It expects to be making 5 million masks a day by the end of February.
SAIC-GM-Wuling Automobile, a joint venture between China's SAIC Motor and U.S. automaker General Motors, also plans to install equipment by Feb. 26 to make more than 1.7 million masks a day. Guangzhou Automobile Group is also considering making masks.
Shanghai Electric Group plans to install machines by Thursday to produce 100,000 masks a day. State-owned oil company China Petroleum and Chemical, better known as Sinopec, will outsource production to an outside company to produce more than 1 million masks a day by March 10.
iPhone supplier Foxconn Technology Group, a unit of Taiwan's Hon Hai Precision Industry, plans to make 2 million masks a day in Shenzhen by the end of the month; baby goods maker DaddyBaby aims to turn out 4.2 million masks daily by the end of the month.
Other companies are planning to raise current output. Lei Limin, vice chairman of the China Textile Commerce Association, told local media the country's daily mask production will reach 180 million by the end of the month.
But Hua Chuang Securities predicts China's manufacturing, medical and transport workers alone will need about 240 million masks a day. That means the country will still a serious shortage of masks, even with 180 million additional masks coming off the production line every day.
Since late January, people in the northeastern city of Dalian have been lining up at drugstores to snap up masks, purchases of which are limited to five per person.
A man in his 50s who identified himself as Wang stood in line with his wife at a drugstore for two hours. They managed to buy 10 masks, but that was "not enough for a family of three," he said.
Another man in his 40s who said his name was Cheng came to the drugstore two days in a row but could not lay his hands on any masks and said he had only six left at home. His high school-age child is required to wear a mask to enter a public study hall, but there are no masks available anywhere, Cheng said.
Even getting into the store to buy more sometimes requires people to don a mask. The sterile strips of fabric are quickly becoming an essential of life in China.