Callers to talkback radio have reported seeing single disposable surgical masks selling for as much as $5, about a 1000 per cent mark-up on the pre-pandemic price.
In the US, some price-gougers have been caught and prosecuted with up to a million masks and gloves in their possession.
However, the hard truth is that there are almost no laws against price-gouging in Australia. The market decides what a product is worth.
Legislation allowing governments to cap prices used to exist in NSW for example, to stop ticket-scalping in the 1980s and 90s but it was repealed last year as part of a clean-up of red tape.
There are some pandemic-specific regulations already in use.
The federal government’s Biosecurity Determination 2020, enacted in March, prohibits anyone from buying “essential goods” and marking them up by more than 120 per cent. However, that still leaves dodgy retailers plenty of wriggle-room with their prices.
If you suspect someone is taking advantage of essentials during the pandemic, call the Australian Federal Police or your state fair trading department.
Offenders could face fines of up to $63,000, or five years in jail if they do not surrender the goods to law enforcement.
Here’s a rough guide of what you should be paying for essential pandemic supplies:
- Disposable surgical masks: 50c to $1 each
- Medical-grade N95/P2 respirator masks: $1 to $5 each
- Washable cloth mask: $5 to $10 each
- Hand sanitiser: About $5 to $10 per 500mL
These price ranges are based on the best deals I have found online. Supplies are cheaper if you buy in bulk, which you will probably need to do for disposable masks, as each mask is meant to be used for only a few hours each.
As a general rule, disposable surgical masks are better than cloth masks, according to Abrar Ahmad Chughtai, an epidemiologist at UNSW.
Many studies show surgical masks are better filters of particles from coughs and sneezes than cloth masks. Youre also less likely to get infected when wearing a surgical mask compared with a cloth mask, he says.
Masks with labels such as N95 (US), P2 (AU/NZ) or KN95 (China) all filter more than 94 per cent of particles, but Dr Chughtai says they should be mainly used by health professionals. The rest of us should use basic masks.
The only thing that can stop price-gouging is us. As consumers, we need to know what is a fair price and reject and call out the rip-offs.
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