Mask Poverty: A Barrier to Health During COVID-19


SEATTLE, Washington — The COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for the entire world with over a million global deaths so far. The IMF predicts that the global economy will shrink by 3% in 2020, the worst decline since the Great Depression. Unemployment rates skyrocketed in every country, with industries like travel and manufacturing being some of the hardest hit. In the absence of therapeutics or vaccines, which are still in development, protective facial masks are the best way to protect against the virus. Mask poverty is a serious concern for those in developing countries.

COVID-19, Masks and Poverty

Because surgical and cloth masks are estimated to be 67% effective in preventing transmission of COVID-19, over 100 countries out of 197 have mandated mask-wearing in public. Even where it is not ordered at the federal level, it is highly recommended or required by certain regions or spaces. However, for poverty-stricken families all around the world, especially the working poor who represent a disproportionate amount of essential services and cannot stay home to limit their exposure, masks represent yet another cost to account for in order to stay safe.

The cost of a pack of 30 surgical masks pre-pandemic on Amazon was about $15. In March, at the start of the pandemic, they were selling online for $199.95 and went out of stock rapidly. Due to high prices and global shortages, many people in affected areas were left maskless. Even now that prices have gone down, a pack of masks can still be costly for those living under the poverty line to afford, especially with the rising tide of unemployment caused by the pandemic.

COVID-19 in Developing Countries

In developing countries, the situation is even more dire. With high population densities, those who cannot afford masks are put at a higher risk of COVID-19 because they also cannot socially distance. In Baghdad, Iran, for example, the population density is 85,140 people per square mile. and that many people cannot remain six feet apart from one another within one square mile. As a result of this predicament, 30% of Iran’s coronavirus cases come from the city and the CDC has put the country under a level three travel warning, advising people to avoid nonessential travel.

For some living on less than $1.50 per day, they have to choose between buying a mask or buying food for their family. Despite some nations like Sri Lanka capping the price of disposable surgical masks at about 20 cents apiece, locals say that pharmacies marked up the costs to about a dollar apiece anyway, rendering them unaffordable for those who make only a little more than that a day. In the rest of South Asia, impoverished people use everything from the loose end of saris to handkerchiefs and towels to cover their faces, despite research showing their ineffectiveness at preventing transmission. When they can get masks, they are overpriced, of poor quality and rarely washed. In the midst of a pandemic, improper masking can be deadly.

Efforts to Solve Mask Poverty

Fortunately, there are solutions to mask poverty that many governments and NGOs are already putting into place. The biggest one is free mask initiatives. In low-income regions, NGOs are working to provide masks at no or reduced cost to as many people as possible. In India, the NGO, Youth for Seva, has produced over 100,000 masks that it gave out for free to the people of Mysuru. In Uganda, the government is sponsoring the distribution of over 30 million masks nationwide, starting with the border districts where both poverty and infection risk are high.

Philanthropists are contributing, as well. Chinese billionaire, Adrian Cheng, has contributed immensely to reducing mask poverty by focusing his company, New World Development, on manufacturing high-quality medical face masks to fill 35 mask vending machines in different NGO buildings across Hong Kong’s 18 districts. This is part of his “Mask to Go” project, which is estimated to help 40,000 people, mostly low-income. He also created an international initiative called “#LoveWithoutBorders” that has donated 2.5 million masks to South Korea, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. NBA player, Bismack Biyombo, is another philanthropist helping his native country. Through his foundation, he has donated 10,000 face masks and 780 hazmat suits to help the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo stay safe from COVID-19.

Masks for Income

Masks also provide a source of income for those who can make them, particularly those who have been economically hardest hit by the pandemic. In the town of Vrindavan in Uttar Pradesh, India, widows living in the care homes and ashrams learned how to make masks during lockdown. About 5,000 of them were given freely to healthcare workers, police and others who needed them. The rest have been prepared for sale through various outlets in India. The women who made the masks will benefit directly from their sale. Similarly, the LONDO project in the Central African Republic is a program organized by the World Bank to provide temporary employment to vulnerable people. Currently the largest cash-for-work program in the country, it has produced more than 2.4 million masks for sale. It is estimated that families will see a 10% increase in household revenue thanks to the program generating 1.6 million workdays and injecting $17 million into the local economy.

With no end in sight to the COVID-19 pandemic, initiatives like these are alleviating mask poverty by ensuring that masks are one less thing for the impoverished to worry about.

Brooklyn Quallen
Photo: Flickr


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