Just two weeks ago, Ahmed Pharmacy, a small medicine store at Farmgate, had less than five customers looking for face masks.
But in the past week, the number of people buying masks has almost quadrupled, as panic around coronavirus spread. The pharmacy is almost out of disposable surgical and N95 masks.
With the increasing demand, price has also increased by two to three times.
Experts and health authorities said those who are affected by flu need to wear mask to stop transmission of the disease, but the masks would have little utility for those who are physically well.
People, however, are prone to misconception, they said.
The actual retail price for one surgical mask is Tk 5, while N95 masks should cost Tk 30.
Like Ahmed Pharmacy, the scenario is similar at all medicine stores and street-side stalls in Farmgate.
Sources in other parts of the city including Dhaka Medical College Hospital, Jatrabari, Mohammadpur College Gate, Mohakhali, and Gabtoli also reported a shortage of face masks.
“We have only half a box (25 pieces) of surgical masks left; N95 masks are already out of stock. The companies are also not supplying anymore,” Foisal Ahmed, owner of Ahmed Pharmacy told The Daily Star.
As demand increased, this pharmacy is selling the rest of the surgical masks at Tk 10.
“If you visit other pharmacies on Green Road, you would find they are selling it for Tk 15, or are already out of stock,” Foisal added.
This correspondent later visited several medicine shops and street vendors at Green Road and Indira Road near Tejgaon College.
No shop or street vendor has stock of pollution-blocking N95 masks while surgical masks were a rare find.
“I sent my nephew to Mitford to buy N95 masks; they asked for Tk 1,200 for a dozen. He returned without buying,” said Md Dulal, a street vendor in front of Ananda Cinema Hall in Farmgate.
Shagor Hassan, a local of Adabor, said, “I bought a mask from my area’s pharmacy about two weeks ago to fend off Dhaka’s polluted air. A few days ago, a friend asked me to get a mask for her, so I went back to the store.”
“To my surprise, they had suddenly run out of masks. I checked a few shops nearby as well, and they were also out of stock. Strange,” added Shagor.
Sources said, there are around five surgical companies in the country which produce or import, then supply masks.
“We have no stock for last 15 days. Our high-ups said import of raw materials from China has been halted since the spread of coronavirus. So we cannot supply anymore,” said Abdul Matin, trainee zonal manager of Getwell Company Ltd, which produces surgical masks.
Meanwhile, authorities said the government has enough stock of surgical masks to tackle any emergency.
“We have discussed the issue in our coordination meeting [on Tuesday]. We [government] have sufficient stock of surgical masks,” Dr Abul Kalam Azad, director general of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) told The Daily Star.
People are acting solely on panic, not based on reality, he added.
He said, “There is no need for wearing mask in general. Mask is required only for those who have caught flu.”
Health Minister Zahid Maleque, in a press briefing at his office yesterday echoed the statement, adding that Japan would send some 70 lakh masks soon, and the existing crisis would be solved then.
The minister assured that there are no coronavirus-infected people inside the country and the government has increased surveillance at all entry points to the country.
The Institute of Epidemiology, Diseases Control and Research (IEDCR) also suggested masks for flu-affected people.