COVID crushed China’s condom industry

Business & Technology

COVID caused a plunge in sexual activity in (and out of) the home, and for the surviving condom manufacturers, switching to medical gloves is the only option.

Illustration for SupChina by Alex Santafé

The COVID-19 pandemic was widely expected — not least by condom manufacturers — to result in a surge in sexual activity and huge demand for condoms, with people locked down in their homes and with not much to do. Instead, the opposite has happened.

In April 2020 at the outset of the pandemic, the Malaysia-based Karex Berhad, the world’s largest condom manufacturer, with an annual output of 5 billion condoms, declared that its inventory could only last for two more months, and a supply gap of 100 million condoms was imminent. Now, two COVID-filled years later, Karex Berhad announced that sales of condoms have declined by 40% since 2020.

The impact on China’s condom manufacturers has been swift and brutal:

  • According to the Tianyancha 天眼查 database of Chinese companies, from 2019 up to June 2022, 43,200 domestic condom manufacturing companies have been removed from the database (have closed down), with an annual average of 17,300 closures.

According to one domestic condom manufacturer, domestic condom prices have dropped without reprieve, and manufacturers have reported sales decreases of up to 30%. Most of the second- and third-tier brands have disappeared, and the brands that survive are barely hanging on.

  • Guilin Zizhu Latex Products 桂林紫竹乳胶制品, for example, established in 1966 and which has long held the title as China’s largest condom manufacturer, has just been sold off for a knockdown price of 450 million yuan ($67.14 million) to Winner Medical 稳健医疗, which intends to use its new acquisition for manufacturing latex gloves.

For many of the domestic condom manufacturers that have survived, switching to latex gloves is the only way out, and according to the Tianyancha database, since 2020, there have been 232,300 newly registered companies producing medical protective gloves. Even Karex Berhad has entered the medical glove manufacturing business, with plans to start production in Thailand this year.

The context

The COVID-19 pandemic and the adherent economic and psychological stresses of lockdowns, lack of work, food, medical care, and even sleep seem to have left people little time and inclination for sex and romance. In China, moreover, families are now allowed to have up to three children, and the government has reportedly reduced the amount of condoms placed at community health service centers.

The pandemic also caused a shutdown of the tourism and hospitality industries, greatly reducing sales of condoms at hotels, which in the past have always seen brisk sales. According to data cited by an article in Southern Weekly in June, nearly half of condom use in China occurs outside the home — sexual encounters that were all nipped in the bud by COVID.

During the economic crises of the last century, condom sales usually experienced an upswing. For example, sales surged in 2008 after the start of the Global Financial Crisis, which the U.S. media likened to people hiding from bad news “under the covers.” Such behavior in times of stress and anxiety has been described as the “lipstick effect,” when cash-strapped consumers still want to reward themselves with luxury products in order to forget their problems. People may not be able to afford an expensive holiday, but most consumers will still afford luxury goods like fast food, the cinema, and lipstick.

But amid the all-encompassing nature of the COVID pandemic and adherent lockdowns, this has not happened. According to the article “Effects of COVID-19 on sexual life — a meta-analysis,” a global study published in the journal Sexologies in early 2021, people were 4.4 times more sexually active before the pandemic than during it.

The takeaway

The COVID-19 pandemic left nothing untouched, least of all sex and condom use. As the pandemic gradually fades away, condom use may well start to increase again, but with record-low birth rates in China and a government stance less supportive of contraception, the recovery may be slight, and condom use may never be what it used to be.