Malaysia's medical glove factories, which make most of the world's critical hand protection, are operating at half capacity just when they're most needed, The Associated Press has learned.
Health care workers snap gloves on as the first line of protection against catching COVID-19 from patients, and they're crucial to protecting patients as well. But medical-grade glove supplies are running low globally.
Malaysia is the world's largest medical glove supplier, producing as many as three out of four gloves on market. The industry has a history of mistreating migrant workers who toil over hand-sized molds as they're dipped in melted latex or rubber, hot and exhausting work.
The Malaysian government ordered factories to halt all manufacturing starting March 18. Then, those making products deemed essential, including medical gloves, have been required to seek exemptions to reopen, but only with half of their workforce to reduce the risk of transmitting the new virus, according to industry reports and insider sources. The government says companies must also meet domestic demand before exporting. The Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association this week is asking for an exception.
“Any halt to the production and administrative segments of our industry would mean an absolute stoppage to glove manufacturing and it will be disastrous to the world,” said association president Denis Low in a statement, adding members have received requests for millions of gloves from about 190 countries.
U.S. imports of medical gloves were 10% lower last month than during the same period last year and experts say greater declines are expected in coming weeks.
Gloves are just one of many types of medical equipment now in short supply in the U.S.
The AP reported last week that imports of critical medical supplies including N95 masks have sharply declined in recent weeks due to factory closures in China.
In the U.S., concerns about a shortage have prompted some stockpiling and rationing. And some locales were asking for public donations.