When things went wrong with a number of foreign orders in the spring, there was a call to make your own protective material. In the meantime, millions of mouth masks are rolling off the production line at home. Then why do we keep wearing Chinese copies?
Two hundred and fifty thousand. They produce so many mouth masks every day at BruMed in Kontich. Louis Cnudde, one of the founders, did not think he would ever be involved in the production of medical protective equipment. Until recently, they mainly advised other companies on their digital strategy. “In February, we heard from one of our largest customers, an international textile group, about the rapidly growing need for mouth masks. Because that customer, Bru Textiles, was internationally positioned, they knew that Covid-19 was also going to cause problems here in Belgium. We decided to join forces and start up BruMed together. ”
The result is five machines that have been producing type 2 and 2R disposable surgical masks domestically since July. Forty people are engaged full-time monitoring the process, performing quality checks and packing the material. “Our goal is to make the Benelux self-reliant,” says Cnudde ambitiously. BruMed wants to increase production to 100 million masks per year.
BruMed claims to have gathered a whole series of customers in a short time, from university hospitals to residential care centers to companies such as the Vanhool bus group. Although the Belgian producer hopes that a government contract will soon be added. “Most of what the government has bought for its stock so far is Chinese. We think that is a great pity. Initially, Belgian production was very encouraged. We were even briefly promised subsidies. But none of that happened. ”
On the contrary, Cnudde thinks there is hardly any interest from the government in his company. “Not only in terms of purchasing material. No one has even come by to see what exactly we are doing here. And that despite the great efforts we have made. It was anything but obvious to start up this production line. ”
BruMed is not the only Belgian company that has recently focused on the production of mouth masks. In total, our country now has eleven producers. This includes a specialist in car upholstery (Van Heurck) and workwear (ECA), beer giant (AB InBev), diaper manufacturer (Ontex), board and card game maker (Medimundi) and packaging group (Ducaju).
When those local players announced their ambitions earlier in the year, they seemed like a lifesaver. Because since the outbreak of the corona crisis, one problem after another with protective equipment has surfaced. If it first became clear that our country had destroyed its strategic stock, then things went wrong with the foreign orders. The whole world was hunting mouth masks because of Covid-19, especially in China where the lion’s share of production is done. The consequence: extortionate prices, long delivery times and poor quality.
A number of countries resolved to no longer be dependent on one country. After France, the Netherlands and Germany announced that they were fully committed to their own production, more and more people in Belgium also asked the question: should we not make mouth masks ourselves?
Then Minister of Health Maggie De Bock (Open Vld) announced that this approach would be examined with the sector. There was a skeptical response, including from Centexbel, the textile technology research center. They argued that it would be virtually impossible to accomplish such a thing in the short term. “You need specially designed machines. The necessary infrastructure is also not available here, ”he said.
Centexbel was wrong. In April, ‘made in Belgium’ turned out to be possible. The Walloon government bought into Newco, the new company of filter manufacturer Deltrian that wants to make 30 million surgical masks a year. In Flanders, too, Minister Philippe De Backer (Open Vld), who then headed the medical devices taskforce, proudly announced that he had decorated a contract with ECA and Van Heurck. “This gives confidence for the near and further future,” he said at the announcement. “I am very pleased that we can now quickly start our own production in Flanders.”
At half power
How is that production now? How many Belgian face masks have rolled off the line in the meantime? Six months later that question turns out to be difficult to answer.
According to a confidential document that The morning could look in, the federal government has ordered 20 million surgical face masks from ECA and Van Heurck. But it seems that order isn’t ready yet. “We only want to speak to the press when we have achieved our goal,” says business manager Marc Vanneste (ECA). There was no response at all at Van Heurck.
At Medimundi / Cartamundi, marketing director Marco van Haaften announces that the start-up has been successful. “We are now moving the machine to Turnhout, so it will take a few weeks before we are up and running,” he says. Van Haaften does not want to disclose how many FFP2 and FFP3 masks they want to produce afterwards. “We will not participate in that auction.”
Some companies reveal more details. Ontex, for example, says that they have been working on 3 million masks since the official opening of their production line in September. It is less clear how smoothly they are sold. Ontex says it wants to supply its own staff and customers, including a number of hospitals and retirement and nursing homes, but does not explain how far along they are. It does say: “We would like to see government contracts coming in.”
They also hope for that government contract at Ducaju. At the company today, they could make 100,000 disposable and comfort masks at full capacity. “But we now only produce half of that,” admits financial director Geert Casselman. “That’s because most of the masks come from China. The government has placed a huge number of orders there. The supermarkets are also full of it. I think 90 to 95 percent of the masks in our country come from China. If we add up all the capacity in our country, then we can make hundreds of millions of purely Belgian here every year. And those are very qualitative masks. ”
The morning was able to view a confidential list of orders the federal government has made for its strategic stock in recent months. In addition to Chinese, it also lists Dutch, German and Belgian suppliers. But according to market experts, it is true that they mainly buy Chinese products. Inquiries show that the situation in supermarkets is not surprisingly different. There is a good chance that you will find a Chinese-made mask on the shelves of Carrefour, Delhaize or Aldi.
It is a striking observation, says Jan Laperre of Centexbel. “On the one hand you call for the production to be taken over, on the other hand you are mainly dealing with Chinese masks. I also hear that some companies that have taken the initiative are disappointed. ” He suspects that the difference in share has to do with prices. “For 0.2 euros or less you have a mask in China, which will soon be higher here.” The quality is similar according to him. A Chinese mask is not necessarily worse than a Belgian one. “It is true that there were problems with the quality of some Chinese masks at the start of the crisis, but that has changed over time. The quality is much better now. ”
Is it wise to lean on one country to that extent? All the more so when it concerns a country that does not take human rights very seriously?
Earlier this year, the US newspaper described The New York Times how Uyghurs, a Muslim minority in northwestern China, would be involved in a controversial labor market program that also makes mouth masks. Some of those masks would be exported, according to their research. Experts who spoke to the newspaper believe that it is forced labor. The Uyghur population has long been oppressed by the communist Chinese government.
Apart from that, the question is whether you want to depend on a country that is constantly trying to increase its geopolitical influence, says Ferdi De Ville, political scientist specialized in European trade policy (UGent). “In any case, this pandemic has taught us that the free market does not always provide the right solutions, especially when it comes to face masks and other medical protective equipment. It seems that as a government it is best to take on a slightly larger role for such matters. ”
According to De Ville, there are things to change in this area, at least at the European level. The Commission will shortly review its trade policy, also in the light of COVID-19. “Normally, that new policy will be dominated by what they call open strategic autonomy. That comes down to embracing free trade, except for the things that can make you as a country or region very vulnerable. ”
In the US, for example, they do that quite cleverly in terms of military equipment, he thinks. “The country does not want to be too dependent on others for this and therefore obliges governments to buy a certain percentage in America. You could translate something like this here. Although I think that is best done at a European level. I think a European stock of medical equipment makes more sense than a stock per country. ”
That does not alter the fact that there are already a lot of companies in our own country that are producing masks, mainly for their own country. According to former minister De Backer, the intention is to gradually increase their share, including through public tenders for the federal stock, which must eventually rotate.
They are working on this at the FPS Public Health, says spokeswoman Wendy Lee. “A public tender is being prepared to conclude a contract with suppliers in the longer term. We are indeed targeting the Belgian market with this. ”
So the companies have to wait and see. Ducaju now sells his comfort and surgical mouth masks for schools, companies, residential care centers and private individuals. De Lijn and the federal police are also among their clients. A nice list, you think, but that does not take away the frustration of financial director Casselman. He is talking about many words and few actions on the government side. “They let us do our thing, even though we have stuck our necks out.”