Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced late Wednesday that the Japanese government would deliver two old-fashioned gauze masks per household in the nation of about 126.5 million to tackle the rising number of COVID-19 infections.
“Today I’m wearing one too, and this cloth mask is not disposable,” he said, unveiling the plan at a government task force meeting.
The prime minister said the masks will be sent by mail to all of Japan’s more than 50 million households, starting from areas with escalating infections, including Tokyo and Osaka.
Abe added that the gauze masks are washable and reusable.
“You can use soap to wash and reuse them, so this should be a good response to the sudden, huge demand for masks,” he said.
The announcement came the day after a government expert panel warned that Japan's health care system may collapse if the number of coronavirus cases continues to grow, according to the Japan Times. Economics Minister Yasutoshi Nishimura said Wednesday that infectious disease experts were particularly concerned about a crisis in Tokyo.
"We must prevent infections from spreading further no matter what. We have come to the edge of edges, to the very brink," he told reporters.
The prime minister repeated that Japan was “barely holding the line” in its battle against the virus and that the number of infections is on the brink of turning explosive.
Still, the two-mask-per-household plan quickly proved unpopular. Some mocked it on Twitter and other social media by calling it “Abenomask,” or “Abe’s mask,” a play on his economic and financial policy of “Abenomics," according to the Associated Press.
Many memes also emerged on social media showing how two masks could work in each household.
“Is the Japanese government for real? This is a total waste of tax money,” one user with the handle Usube wrote, according to Reuters.
The Japanese prime minister has faced criticism for his response to the pandemic. Some alleged the government manipulated numbers by limiting tests, or combined COVID-19 deaths with other pneumonia fatalities before the Summer Olympics were canceled. Abe denied that.
Japan's strategy so far has been to focus on clusters and to trace infection routes rather than testing everyone
Abe's government has enacted a special law and convened a task force to pave the way for Abe’s possible state of emergency declaration due to the virus.
In a country where surgical masks are household items as protection for pollen allergies, common colds or any facial issue, masks have been out of stock for weeks, and stocks were low at medical institutions.
As of Thursday, there were at least 951,901 positive cases of COVID-19 and at least 48,284 deaths worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University. The number of infections in Japan has reached at least 2,384 with at least 57 deaths.
Fox News' Hollie McKay and The Associated Press contributed to this report.