Why have we been told that there aren't any masks left?
The most generous explanation is that people simply aren't aware of how quickly China has ramped up mask production - enough to have a surplus of supply, available for sale on international retail sites AliExpress, DHGate, and others.
The stock on AliExpress alone can cover the entirety of U.S. hospitals' mask needs today.
Another factor is that outlets like EBay and Amazon are restricting mask listings out of an abundance of caution, removing even legitimate vendors from their directories.
And yet another reason is regulatory: only on April 3 did the US F.D.A. approve the Chinese mask standard, KN95, which is as stringent if not more so than the better known N95.
Compliance regulations for PPE are onerous, with multiple agencies setting different standards. On top of that, recently introduced "price gouging" laws make importers nervous. Like basic economic theory predicts, instead of cheap masks we get no masks, as hospitals are outbid by foreign buyers or masks already in country are exported to higher bidders abroad.
The biggest reason, though, was a well-intentioned desire to ration masks for healthcare workers who needed them most. But lying to the public isn't the solution.
If we had a soap shortage, would we want the government to discourage hand washing? Or would we start making our own soap, importing soap from abroad and ramping up local soap manufacturing?
Meanwhile, specialized local manufacturers, like this one in Texas, aren't being supported with contracts to buy masks on an ongoing basis, so they're not running at capacity.
If masks are so ineffective, why would it even be desirable to save them for doctors and nurses? As Benjamin Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, says
"it doesn’t make sense to imagine that... surgical masks are really important for health care workers but then not useful at all for the general public."
The world is arriving at a sensible compromise: DIY cloth masks for everyone and N95s for those who need them most.
But there's no longer a true shortage of quality masks. They're being made in China, Korea and Taiwan at incredible scale and speed. International shipping continues to operate.
Many shortages are artificial, caused by either deliberate interference, like feds in the US who are seizing masks en route to hospitals, Thai politicians hoarding them, the previously mentioned regulations and price controls - and lack of awareness about Chinese e-commerce platforms.
While we can't do anything about the feds, we can help sort through the labyrinth of Alibaba.
The challenge is digging through all these vendors, finding good masks of multiple varieties and figuring out who can ship where quickly.