Switzerland’s dilemma: What to do with the surplus of face masks?

Switzerland’s dilemma: What to do with the surplus of face masks?
Switzerland has too many masks. Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP
Only a few weeks ago Switzerland suffered a shortage of masks to protect its population from Covid-19. Now the country is facing the reverse problem.

When coronavirus hit the country at the beginning of March, face masks were scarce in Switzerland —pharmacies in most cantons sold out quickly after the first cases emerged.

The shortage became so severe that authorities had to order masks from abroad and purchase equipment to manufacture face coverings. 

Amid the shortage in April, the authorities vowed to order enough masks so that a million a day could be supplied to shops across the country — even though the Federal Council never made it mandatory to wear masks in public. Instead wearing masks was recommended in certain situations such as on public transport.

But now that groups of up to 300 people are permitted to gather, masks may be required if the  distance of two metres between people can't be maintained.

Now, however, the country is faced with a different problem: what to do with the surplus of masks it ordered at the height of the pandemic.

READ MORE: WHO interview: 'If our behaviour returns to normal Europe risks new waves of Covid-19' 

According to NZZ am Sonntag newspaper, Swiss authorities and the military ordered around 250 million units between the end of March and the beginning of June. 

Nearly 40 million of these were handed over to the cantons and retailers at cost price.

Another 90 million masks are still in China or on their way to Switzerland, and 20 million units are stored in various warehouses throughout the country.

“Switzerland is sitting on millions of hygiene masks and no longer knows where to put them it”, the NZZ said.

The authorities have not yet said what they would do with the excess masks.

With the number of infections now averaging about 20 a day — and on many days even less, compared to over 1,000 during the pandemic — people in Switzerland no longer feel the urgency to protect themselves with a mask.

However, at least some of the surplus will likely still be sold: masks continue to be required or recommended at airports, on board planes, on public transportation, and in the event that the two-metre distance between individuals can’t be maintained.

Also, some people may be buying the masks as a precaution, to keep in the event the second wave of Covid-19 strikes Switzerland, as some experts predict it would — in which case masks may become scarce again. 


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