The coronavirus erupted in South Korea in late January, six months into Yoo Yoon-sook’s new job. She had just moved from Seoul, where she spent three decades working in the same pharmacy, to open the Hankyeol (“Steadfast”) Pharmacy in the city of Incheon, near the international airport. Ms. Yoo hadn’t really gotten a sense of the neighborhood around her new pharmacy “before this all happened,” she told me. It became all coronavirus, all the time.
Incheon’s 1,100 pharmacies, including Ms. Yoo’s, began to sell out of KF-94 face masks, the equivalent of the American N95. So did corner stores and large retail chains like E-Mart. As Koreans learned of the scale and aggressiveness of Covid-19, first from Chinese reports, then from a surge of cases at home, the mask with the weave and construction that proved most effective against the virus could not be found, except at exorbitant prices online. Customers grew angry waiting outside stores. One Incheon pharmacy posted a sign saying, “Regarding masks: Threats, physical violence and insults against employees are punishable under criminal law.”
Such was the extent of the “mask crisis” when the central government decided to intervene in production and distribution. At the end of February, it announced that it would purchase 50 percent of KF-94 masks from the nation’s 130 or so manufacturers. The government began to ship these masks, at a discounted price of 1,500 won each (about $1.23), to some 23,000 pharmacies, in cooperation with the Korean Pharmaceutical Association.