(TMU) — The Japanese government is taking aim at those seeking to profit from the growing coronavirus pandemic by making the reselling of masks a crime punishable by a one-year prison term or ¥1 million ($9,800) fine, or both, Tokyo announced Tuesday.
The new rule is set to come into effect on Sunday and aims to prevent unethical would-be profiteers from using the scarcity of masks to their advantage for monetary gain, reports Japan Times.
However, a trade ministry official stressed that the rule does not seek to bar people from redistributing masks to friends and family or reselling them for the same price they were purchased for, or for lower prices.
The official said that the government simply seeks to “ensure that the average consumer can get their hands on masks.”
The rule is being implemented through a revised version of a law enacted to control panic-buying and price-gouging during 1973 oil crisis, when the world economy was upended after members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries launched an oil embargo.
At present, other in-demand products including diapers and disinfectants are not being included in the new rule, but they may be added later if Tokyo deems the move necessary. The rule will be lifted following a return to normal demand.
The move also comes after the trade ministry asked e-commerce and online retail firms such as Rakuten and Mercari to suspend online auctions of face masks on March 14, but resellers have still persisted in seeking to flip the highly sought-after masks.
Manufacturers have struggled to meet the surging demand for masks, even as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has promised that the country would boost the supply of face masks to 600 million a month, with a priority on stocking nursing facilities.
Shizuoka prefectural assemblyman Hiroyuki Morota recently issued a televised apology after he was revealed to have made ¥8.9 million ($85,000) by selling packets of 2,000 face masks online in auctions for ¥30,000 to ¥170,000 each. The independent lawmaker, who runs a trading company, claims that he had surplus stock of the masks following the outbreak of Middle East respiratory syndrome that first appeared in 2012.
Because Morota operates a trading company, he may not be classified as a reseller and could possibly be exempt under the new rule, the trade ministry official said.
Also Tuesday, Prime Minister Abe extended a request for large sports and cultural events to be canceled or postponed due to viral spread of the outbreak. The Japanese Cabinet also approved a bill that would allow the prime minister to declare a state of emergency if necessary as the East Asian country struggles to control coronavirus infections ahead of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, Kyodo News reports.
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