As Americans flock to their nearest grocery or drug store to stock up on necessities such as hand soap and face masks, they might see the shelves bare. China was in a similar predicament two months ago, and the country has learned from it.
Before the coronavirus outbreak, China was making about half of the world's supply of masks at a rate of 20 million units a day. Based on a simple "encouragement" by the Chinese government, that figure rose to 116 million by Feb. 29, according to China's state planning agency. A more common disposable and high-end mask, the N95 model, was the most in-demand.
The Liu Factory, a local factory that over the last 10 years only made diapers and baby products in the Chinese city of Quanzhou, decided in February it would jump into the face mask business to cater to the soaring demand due to the coronavirus outbreak.
The company has roughly 100 workers and has created two production lines to make up to 200,000 masks a day.
Companies that decided to aid with mask creation were offered forms of subsidies, lower taxes, interest-free loans, fast-track approvals for expansion and help to alleviate labor shortages.
"The government is advocating an expansion in production," Liu, who preferred to only give his last name, told the South China Morning Post. "With faster approvals, producers need to prioritize the government's neds over exports."
China has compared this massive mask-making time period to a "wartime-like shift in industrial policy." The capital, Beijing, has instructed its state-owned enterprises to lead the nationwide mask-making effort and the country's manufacturing engine shall follow their lead.
"For me, this is the big advantage of China, the speed," said Thomas Schmitz, president of the China branch of Austrian engineering giant Andritz. "When you need to run people, know how to run, and this is something which has been lost in other countries since their industrial heydays."
The maker of China's new fighter jet, J-20, Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, has renovated part of its factory to include a mask production line. The Sinchuan Daily says that 258 engineers at the company spent three days expediting the development of an assembly line that included 1,200 parts.
More than 2,500 companies across China have started making mask including 700 technology companies. Local iPhone assembler Foxconn and smartphone makers Xiaomi and Oppo are among the group.