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Disastrous Masks

Disastrous Masks

The global health tragedy brought about by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has grabbed headlines. Late in 2019, the virus was spotted in China’s seafood market in Wuhan city of Hubei province. It is believed that the virus was first transmitted from an infected animal, namely bats. On January 30, 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) declared coronavirus a global pandemic that required an emergency health response.

Ever since, the virus has kept spreading at a tremendous speed to affect some 180 countries.  The pandemic has created fear and anxiety in the public with death tolls rising beyond 240,000 and counting. It has already created huge cracks in the global socio-economic system and has exposed vulnerable societies to catastrophic outcomes.  

The virus has spread easily and undetected while weak global health infrastructure, preparedness and early warning systems have contributed to the quick transmission of the virus leaving the majority of the world population highly susceptible. With no vaccines still developed and trials still in the early stages, the WHO has highly recommended various precautionary measures including staying at home, social distancing, washing hands frequently, using alcohol-based products to cleanse hands and materials, and using face masks for preventing the spread of the virus. Cognizant that stay-at-home orders are critical to slowing down the spread of the virus, many countries have introduced total lockdown measures. These, though, are impractical for many poor countries like Ethiopia where the vast majority of people have to work to meet their daily basic needs. In fact, Ethiopia has enacted a partial lockdown that has already begun to impact the economic life of the country. The ideal solutions to remain safe from COVID-19, however, are the basics such as washing hands frequently and wearing masks when commuting and moving in and around public places. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) strongly recommends using homemade simple cloth face coverings to help slow the spread of the virus and to prevent asymptomatic persons unknowingly transmitting it to others. Coming to Ethiopia the use of facemasks has become obligatory in government institutions and public transportation. This leads us to the question of how and when they should be used.

WHO recommends special masks (N95 masks or surgical masks) and other protective equipment and devices for frontline healthcare workers exposed to the virus. Due to shortages of professional masks in Ethiopia, textile and garment companies are shifting production lines to manufacture healthcare supplies, mainly facemasks. For the general public, homemade masks suffice. However, homemade masks are not regulated, and perhaps not ideal for those who are highly exposed to the virus while treating patients. Furthermore, the devices must meet essential safety standards and requirements. While homemade facemasks guarantee some degree of protection, they fare a lot less in terms of protection than surgical masks or respirators. Homemade and other non-medical cloth masks could serve the same purpose as surgical masks given they are designed to minimize the spread of germs, viruses, bacteria and the like to people and surfaces. They also help to block respiratory emissions through saliva and mucus droplets as well as aerosols. These masks, often made of paper or other non-woven materials, fit loosely around the face and allow air to leak in around the edges when the user inhales. As a result, they’re not considered reliable against infection from the virus. Before putting on a mask, hands should be cleaned with alcohol-based rubs or washed with soap and water. Users need to cover the mouth and nose with mask and make sure there are no gaps between the face and the mask. Users are highly advised to wear masks when coughing or sneezing. Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand cleaning with alcohol-based rubbing chemicals or washing soap and water. Proper disposal of used masks as well plays a critical role in limiting the spread of coronavirus.

The main inputs in the production of surgical masks and N95 are the materials, particularly the filter, which requires the use of purpose-built machines. Homemade masks should preferably be made using 100 percent cotton material and have three layers. Cotton clothing can be used to make masks that filter air as normal surgical masks do. The thicker the material is the better it works.  Quality cotton-made fabrics or materials could be superior to normal masks. Experts say that although vacuum cleaner bags and air filters can be used, care should be taken to ensure that the material is safe to breathe through. Homemade masks and face shields can be crafted from fruits, raincoats, women’s underwear, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles and other household items. These objects may offer less or no protection against the contagion and lull the desperate into a false sense of safety. Users are therefore advised to pay attention and be discerning while purchasing facemasks.

In Ethiopia, different companies are repurposing their production to manufacture facemasks to meet the surging demand of the population. The federal Food and Drugs Authority (FDA) has authorized certain garment factories to produce masks that adhere to WHO standards upon obtaining and compliance with compulsory certifications. They are required to guarantee the masks they produce definitely filter out bacteria and viruses. Presently garment and textile companies operating in the Hawassa Industrial Park have begun producing some 10,000 facemasks daily meeting government-mandated quality standards. Mafi Mafi, a company established by designer Mahlet Afework, has also embarked on mask production. But there are some companies taking advantage of the situation to gouge users with inferior and cheap quality products. The FDA recently banned Almeda Textiles PLC, one of the largest garment makers in the country, from supplying masks to pharmacies saying its products were not fit for use by medical professionals. FDA attributed the ban to low bacterial and viral protection capability, especially when utilized in medical centers.

Currently, FDA is assessing and tracking companies that supply masks and other healthcare supplies to medical facilities to assure quality. Back in April 29, 2020 alone it was found out that over 33,000 facemasks were being sold without fulfilling any essential requirements whatsoever. The officials at the helm of the relevant regulatory authorities need to work robustly on ascertaining that companies involved in the production of facemasks and hygienic products maintain the highest standard in order to avert the harm caused to public health by substandard materials.

A cofounder of Yosef and Beniam Printing PLC says that they are aggressively involved in facemasks production for the local market. Despite lacking professional training, under the guidance of authorities local companies are emerging quickly to produce masks that meet basic safety standards with cotton fabrics and three-layer masks. More companies are getting involved in the supply chain to address the ever-growing demand. 

According to FDA, companies will not be excused for substandard quality health products that are supplied to the market. Once found infringing compulsory guidelines and requirements, serious measures will be taken, including closure of businesses, revoking of licenses and hefty penalties. The Addis Ababa Food, Medicine and Healthcare Administration (AAFMHACA) is taking a leading role in quality assurance and monitoring.