In distributing face masks, local authorities respond to grassroots advice

Wang Yong
While registering households for mask ration coupons, officials avoided chaotic scenes and pushy crowds by heeding concerns and criticisms.
Wang Yong

More than 2 million households in Shanghai applied for ration coupons yesterday to purchase face masks, which remain in short supply amid the coronavirus-related pneumonia epidemic.

Specifically, statistics from the municipal civil affairs bureau show that nearly 2.2 million households, or about 26 percent of the city’s total, turned out at 6,077 urban and rural neighborhoods on Sunday, the first day of a citywide registration campaign to ensure an equitable and orderly distribution of face masks.

Face masks are among the best and most common weapons for ordinary people to ward off the virus that's known to spread through airborne and physical contact.

There had been worries about crowded and chaotic lines as many residents would probably squeeze into limited neighborhood spaces. But actual conditions were much better than expected. No queue-jumping or pushing incidents were noted, and most applicants kept a healthy distance from one another while waiting in line.

The city has learned a lesson, and learned it well.

According to reports, Shanghai began increasing the supply of face masks quite early on. Between January 22 and 26, the city delivered more than 4 million masks to designated retailers. Many mask factories which had suspended production for the Spring Festival holiday returned to work with a vengeance. Imports from many other countries were also accelerated.

From January 28, residents could go to designated drugstores to buy masks: One person could buy five to 10 at a time. But outside some drugstores were long lines of customers, some of whom grew heated when told that sales had to be rationed.

To avoid emotional, and potentially infectious, crowds at points of sale, the city added another layer of protection by coordinating with local neighborhoods. One household can now apply for no more than five masks at a time. When a designated drugstore has masks, it will notify a relevant neighborhood, which in turn will pass the information to those residents who have successfully registered. In this way, chaotic lines and potential hysteria can be avoided.

Before yesterday’s citywide registration at the neighborhood level, some netizens were worried about possible crowds as many people would go outdoors. But things turned out to be largely peaceful and orderly thanks to grassroots wisdom from local cadres and residents.

In many neighborhoods, registration via WeChat or phone calls effectively reduced the number of residents gathering outdoors. Local cadres also posted pieces of paper on the ground, upon which applicants had to stand. The distance between pieces of paper was at least 1 meter. In one village, local cadres prepared chairs in a designated area, so that the elderly could sit and wait. The chairs were also kept within a safe distance from each other.

No measures are perfect, but Shanghai cadres are leading by listening. Mayor Ying Yong said on February 1 that a government open to criticism and supervision is a government that’s diligent and forward-looking. He was addressing a group of medical experts and soliciting suggestions on how best to fight the virus.

It’s this spirit of leading by listening that has ensured great ideas at a time of emergency. In one neighborhood in Yangpu District, some local cadres offered to buy masks at drugstores on behalf of residents to reduce exposure outside communities. In Baoshan District, cadres endorsed residents’ suggestion to create a QR code for each residential building to speed up registration.

Not just Shanghai, but also Hangzhou in nearby Zhejiang Province has lent its ear to grassroots voices in improving its supply of masks. On the afternoon of February 1, the Hangzhou government announced that all local citizens could get five masks for free through online registration. Many netizens grumbled, citing the risk of crowds gathering that might arise when citizens would go fetch the masks in person. After weighing public suggestions, the government issued a new notice that evening, saying that masks would be delivered to the doorsteps of successfully registered residents.

Some netizens have compared Shanghai and Hangzhou and prefer one to another. Certainly the two cities have espoused different methods in distributing as many masks as possible while reducing the risk of crowd contagion. In Hangzhou, it was mainly online registration. In Shanghai, it’s both online and offline. Situations vary, but both have bowed to grassroots voices.

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