Exploring the Shortage of Affordable Masks in Developing Countries

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SEATTLE, Washington — Scientists, governments and medical professionals worldwide are searching for solutions to the novel coronavirus. Currently, there is no vaccine or dependable cure available; however, there are preventative measures that can slow the spread. Social distancing is becoming the new norm. Governments encouraged people to limit physical interactions and maintain a safe distance of 6 feet. In addition to social distancing, wearing masks is an effective way to lower infection rates and countries around the world are mandating the use of masks in public places. However, this introduces challenges to developing countries and impoverished communities where affordable masks are unavailable.

Health Guidelines

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 spreads from respiratory droplets that, once released from one person, can be inhaled into another person’s lungs. A person experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or is asymptomatic can release these droplets, infecting others.

To avoid contracting COVID-19, the CDC has recommended the use of face coverings in public settings. Masks block the contaminated respiratory droplets from infecting another person, acting as an important tool in fighting this disease.

The CDC points to a case study in Missouri as proof of the effectiveness of masks. The case discusses two hairdressers who developed symptoms of COVID-19. They continued to take appointments but were diligent about their use of masks. Every customer they interacted with later tested negative for COVID-19. This case exemplifies how masks can help keep communities healthy.

Limited Access to Protective Equipment

The COVID-19 pandemic impacts everyone, but the world’s poor are suffering disproportionately. The challenges in finding affordable masks add to their preexisting struggles. For example, those in poverty often need to leave the house for work, lacking accessibility to online work that limits physical interactions. Moreover, many living in poverty may be unable to self-isolate and instead expose themselves daily to others who may be infected. Furthermore, economies worldwide are slowing down as a result of the virus. With fewer people working and consuming products, wages are lowering. The result is that people in poverty have an increasing need for masks and other protective equipment but less funding to buy them.

Wearing a mask is now a requirement in countries like India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and is encouraged by Afghanistan and Bangladesh governments. These countries have a significant percentage of their population living in poverty and have seen prices of masks increase due to demand. In fact, a single, disposable mask is as much as $7 in these South Asian countries. For reference, laborers in Afghanistan might make less than $2 a day, making impoverished populations decide between a disposable mask and other necessities, such as food, housing and water. As a result, many disadvantaged communities are left without COVID-19 protective equipment and a higher chance of spreading the virus.

Producing Affordable Masks

Saral Designs, a company originally devoted to producing inexpensive menstrual products, is doing its part to address the mask shortage in South Asia, specifically India. Suhani Mohan co-founded the company, based in the city of Mumbai. The pandemic inspired Mohan to repurpose the company’s machines to make masks in addition to pads and other sanitation products.

The company strives to produce products affordably and efficiently to provide low costs for its customers. Its masks take only $0.06 to produce. Furthermore, Saral Designs produces at a rate to make around 10,000 masks a day. This efficiency does not sacrifice quality. The company is committed to making 3-ply masks with a UV sterilized bacteria layer.

Companies like Saral Designs make it possible for impoverished populations to have access to affordable masks for themselves and their families. With affordable masks readily available, people no longer have to choose between protecting their communities from COVID-19 or necessities like food and water. With the help of companies like Saral Designs, impoverished communities can have both.

The Artistic Approach

Artist Amanullah Kaliwaal makes approximately 500 masks a day using only his personal sewing machine. A resident of Afghanistan, Kaliwaal donates his masks to impoverished communities who cannot afford to pay for one. His contribution started by simply buying masks and giving them away, but he quickly realized that the mask shortage was so widespread that he needed further action.

Kaliwaal’s story shows the impact a single person can make. If more follow his example and turn their resources toward producing affordable masks, entire communities can be safer.

The novel coronavirus infects people, regardless of income or socioeconomic status. However, those living in poverty cannot access the necessary resources to protect themselves from the virus. Disadvantaged households may be unable to isolate or buy masks, which help keep the whole community safe. As a result, the COVID-19 pandemic is disproportionally affecting impoverished people. However, companies like Saral Designs and people like Kaliwaal ensure that communities are united in the fight against COVID-19, including those living in poverty.

—Abigail Gray
Photo: Flickr

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