Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ethics, Surgical Masks, and Swine Flu

Mexican police dealing with the swine flu epidemic there have arrested 13 individuals accused of selling surgical masks on the street. This led Health Economist blogger Jason Shafrin to examine the ethics associated with providing free surgical masks.

If the government stayed out of the picture and allowed private enterprise to address the surgical mask situation during an epidemic, "manufacturers of surgical masks would receive the same amount of money, but instead of getting paid by the government, they would be paid by firms," Shafrin says. "Firms would be the winners in that they could resale the masks at a profit. Wealthy and middle class households would be able to purchase the masks and poor families would not."

Another argument for free distribution of surgical masks is to prevent corruption, Shafrin says. "If individuals can sell surgical masks at a profit, government workers will have an incentive to give away surgical masks to their friends," he says. "Their friends can collect rents from their receipt of a large quantity of free masks."


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