When health workers in Wuhan City detected an influx of pneumonia patients presenting with coughs and difficulty in breathing, they suspected a tragedy they had never imagined.
Today, the worldwide spread of coronavirus first detected in the Chinese city currently locked down has left flights grounded and economies crumbling.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared coronavirus a global pandemic, with about 3 200 deaths in China and 5 400 globally.
However, the highly contagious disease has not only raised panic. Some entrepreneurs are gazing at the proverbial silver lining of the emergency.
For instance, Lab Enterprises Limited and Bio Clinical in Blantyre seem determined to make business work while safeguarding people from the virus that has spread from Wuhan in Mainland China to South Africa, just a two-hour flight away from Malawi.
The two suppliers of clinical equipment are stocking masks to wade off the potential spread of the outbreak which has affected about 157 000 people in 155 countries and territories, including Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Swaziland and South Africa in Africa.
The virus, which is transmitted through contact with droplets released by infected people when they speak, cough and sneeze, has not reached Malawi yet.
However, the two firms say what was ideally a mere medical equipment bought from time to time by the Ministry of Health and private clinics has become a bestselling weapon in the fight against the potential outbreak of the fast-spreading pandemic.
The virus is partly prevented by covering one’s mouth and nose, but sales personnel at Lab Enterprises have reported a surge in customers desperate to buy the medical masks lately.
This, however, is not the only surprise to the supplies of clinical props—as there are almost 17.6 million faces to be covered from the global public health crisis.
As the demand grows, they have also noted a sudden price hike at the source of the protective wear.
Explains Roy Lipipa, sales representative at Lab Enterprises: “We source our medical masks in South Africa. But while prices for other items we order from the same suppliers have been rising, prices of medical masks have been constant for a long time.
“To our surprise, since December, the cost of medical masks is twice the price we were paying a month before.”
As health officials encourage the use of medical masks to block droplets spreading from infected persons, demand for the protective product has picked up.
Sales representative Faith Phiri says scores of outbound travellers, especially expatriates, are top of the list of customers queuing for the masks.
This, however, has not necessitated any price adjustments as the demand alone is enough to offset the buying price.
“Sales have picked up fast, but, we are limiting how much we can sell to an individual due to orders from the Ministry of Health. Still, we are making a great deal out of these products that Malawians seldom buy in the absence of disease outbreaks,” says Phiri.
At BioClinical Partners, the opportunity almost slipped through their fingers as the stocks were low just when the demand was rising.
Says Eunice Chiphwaliwali, the company’s operations manager: “We had to move fast to get stocks as fast as we could in view of the growing demand for the once silent product.
“The few we had in store sold like hot cakes as demand continued to mount each passing day,”
British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on Tuesday reported that retailers on all continents are running out of masks and prices for a box of masks on online retailers like Amazon have surged to hundreds of dollars.
On Monday, BBC captured a line of hundreds of people in the city of Daegu in South Korea, where the outbreak is growing, waiting to buy them.
On the same day, an industrial equipment store in Italy, where more than 370 people were confirmed to be infected in a day, sold more than 500 masks—the type used in factories and on building sites—in the first 30 minutes it was open.
Meanwhile, Chinese mask makers are reportedly operating at 76 percent capacity which puts daily production at around five million pieces fewer than the 20 million maximum, according to the BBC.
Three weeks ago, Malawi’s Ministry of Health and the one responsible Industry, Trade and Tourism suspended the exportation of medical products, especially face masks.
Secretary for Health Dan Namarika and his counterpart for Industry, Trade and Tourism Ken Ndala said the move was meant to control the availability of medical products that would be in demand locally amid outbreaks such as coronavirus.
Currently, Facebook has temporarily banned adverts and commerce listings for medical face masks amid growing concern over coronavirus-related exploitation.
Rob Leathern, Facebook director of product management, tweeted that the chat platform, which connects people, is monitoring the outbreak closely and will make necessary updates to its policies as people are trying to exploit this public health emergency.