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A postal worker delivers free cloth masks to a house in Tokyo on Friday under the controversial government programme. Photo: Kyodo

In Japan, dirty face masks spark online backlash against prime minister

  • Shinzo Abe’s plan to distribute two reusable cloth masks to every household in the country had already been widely ridiculed as inadequate
  • Then thousands of the protective face coverings had to be returned after they were found to be dirty, stained or contaminated with dust, hair and insects
Already widely ridiculed as a feeble gesture from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the delivery of two face masks to every household in Japan has come under renewed fire after thousands of them were found to be dirty or stained or contaminated with dust, dead insects or human hair.
Abe’s initiative to halt the spread of the coronavirus was announced on April 1, with the aim of delivering two cloth masks to every one of the 50 million households in the country after panic buying in the early stages of the pandemic cleared shop shelves of supplies.

Japan PM gets social media roasting for offering free cloth masks

The first 10 million masks were released in the middle of last week and were sent initially to local governments to distribute to pregnant women, who are considered to be at a higher risk if they contract the illness.

Local authorities and the Ministry of Health soon started receiving complaints, with national broadcaster NHK reporting that more than 1,900 people from 80 municipalities across the country had requested replacement masks as of Saturday.

The government’s response to the crisis had already been condemned in some quarters as inadequate and far too slow, but the “Abemasks” initiative, as it is referred to on social media – a play on the prime minister’s much-vaunted but now-moribund “Abenomics” economic plans – has invited even more scorn.

“If there are visible stains in these masks, does that not mean that there is contamination that we can’t see?” asked one Twitter user. “I’m too scared to use this mask. So what are we meant to do? Send them back? What a waste of taxpayers’ money this has been.”

Disease expert hits out at Japan’s slow coronavirus response

“The ministry tells us now not to give these masks to pregnant women,” said another. “How about the ministry simply not throwing these dirty masks in our letterboxes in the first place?”

A commenter on the Japan Today website also took issue with the 46.6 billion yen (US$432.6 million) cost of the programme, saying, “What an embarrassment to society! Must have been a bunch of masks scheduled to be destroyed.”

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pictured wearing a cloth face mask following a news conference in Tokyo on Friday. Photo: Bloomberg

Others suggested that the failures of the government, including the delay in declaring a state of emergency in an effort to ensure that the Tokyo Olympic Games went ahead as scheduled in July, mean “this is just the beginning” of the country’s problems stemming from the virus.

“By this move, Abe shows his true colours,” said one. “A purely token display. Sent out to purely appease the masses and to appear to be doing something. Utterly useless in the real world. Delivered at great expense to the taxpayer. Two per household when most houses have more than two members. This is Abe. All show and pomp and no actual substance.”

People wear face masks at Shinagawa railway station in Tokyo during morning rush hour on Monday. Photo: Reuters

Officials at the health ministry declined to comment on the issue, but local media have reported that the ministry will replace the masks with clean ones and is calling on local authorities to visually inspect each mask before they are handed out. It has also told manufacturers to resolve production problems.

Elsewhere, operators of nursing homes and day care centres have criticised the masks for being too small to cover an adult’s mouth and nose at the same time.

The number of domestic infections rose to 10,802 on Sunday, with 369 news cases confirmed around Japan. An additional 712 cases were reported aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship while it was docked in Yokohama after an outbreak among the passengers and crew. In total, there have been 249 fatalities to date.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: No covering anger at embattled PM in ‘Abemasks’ saga