Unwanted ‘Abenomask’ now in high demand

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Boxes of surplus cloth masks sit in a warehouse outside Tokyo in December last year.

The cloth masks that no one seemed to want early in the pandemic are now in hot demand.

The Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, looking to disburse 80 million cloth masks left over from a 2020 government distribution campaign and currently in storage, said Monday it has received requests for more than 280 million.

According to the ministry, a total of 370,000 requests from local governments, nursing homes and individuals have been sent for the masks, which were made available as an early government countermeasure against the coronavirus.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida had said the government had planned to dispose of the masks by the end of this fiscal year in March, but the surprising demand has led to a change of policy.

The government now plans to start distributing the masks from early March after determining the amount to be allotted.

The masks were originally distributed to households under the direction of then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, but they proved unpopular and shipments stopped. The cost of storing the remaining inventory became a problem.

“If only they had done it [distribution] earlier,” Abe said at a meeting of his Liberal Democratic Party faction on Thursday.