Liberians Combating COVID-19 with Locally Made Face Masks

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A motorcyclist and a passenger wear their face masks at Barnesville Estate junction, Gardnersville. (Photo: Daily Observer/William Q. Harmon)

By William Q. Harmon, with New Narratives

MONROVIA – Mac Quarthy, a 32-year-old who runs a tailoring business on the Capitol Bye-Pass in Monrovia, decided to make face masks after his shop was ordered closed as the state of emergency imposed by the Government of Liberia took effect on April 8. Using readily available African textiles, Quarthy and other colleagues produced over 300 face masks that were on sale in the streets in less than a week.

“There was a shortage of masks and I had seen samples of face masks made of cloth in other African countries on the internet,” recalls Quarthy. “I wanted to use my talent and locally available fabric to show that we can also contribute to the response to the pandemic while at the same time making little income.”

As the number of confirmed Coronavirus cases in the country continued to climb, the Government of Liberia declared the wearing of face masks in public mandatory as part of the COVID-19 preventive measures.  However, at the beginning of the pandemic, only the imported surgical masks and face shields could be found on the market — disposable and in short supply. Tailors like Quarthy saw this short supply as an opportunity to make reusable masks from fabric, a symbol of Liberia’s response to the pandemic.

Tailor Mac Quarthy, 32, makes cloth masks at his Capitol Bye-Pass shop in Monrovia. (Photo: Daily Observer/ William Q. Harmon)

So far, twenty-eight people have died from coronavirus from a total of 311 cases as of June 1.

“We need to safeguard our people against the virus with the introduction of wearing masks in public, but we are experiencing an acute shortage of medical masks,” says the Director General of the National Public Health Institute (NPHIL) Dr. Mosoka Fallah in an interview with Daily Observer. “We, therefore, have no other alternative but to engage into the production of face masks with local resources. This will help in protecting the country.”

Despite its popularity, some users have qualms with the locally produced masks.

“It is too tight and breathing is difficult,” says Rachel Woodson in Sinkor. Woodson wants authorities advise tailors and seamstresses on how to make the masks more effective.

“Riding the bike with the mask on is terrible for us,” laments Saye Gontee, a motorcyclist at the ELWA junction in Paynesville. “We get no enough air filtering in, that’s why most times you will see the mask hanging under our chins. We can bring it down to get air.”

Some tailors have cleverly added a zipper over the mouth of the locally-made masks for users to conveniently breathe and consume beverages without taking off the whole mask. But the whole idea of the face mask during the Coronavirus pandemic is to to protect the nostrils and mouth against possible infection, as well as preventing those who wear the masks from potentially spreading the virus.

Dr. Fallah acknowledges the limitations of the masks but adds that the public is safer with it than without it. “The safety level of the locally made masks is as low as 30 percent. But when the person next to you is also wearing it, the safety level increases to 60 percent,” Dr. Fallah says. “This, we think, is the best way to secure the public.”

He urges people to have at least two cloth masks so they can wash one and while they use the other one. “We want our people ensure that the masks are washed with soap and hot water, rinsed thoroughly and, if possible, ironed,” Dr. Fallah says. Surgical masks are for healthcare providers and patients in hospital wards, where the risk of catching the virus is high.

Selling masks

Tailors are acting on users’ feedback, making the masks to enhance breathing, while maintaining style. There are new ones that look like surgical masks, while others have protruding mouth coves that look more like the beak of a duck. Others are spongy for better comfort and they come in different sizes.

With their shops ordered closed under the state of emergency, mask-making has become the sole source of survival for many seamstresses and tailors and competition stiffened daily as well.

“It was really difficult when we were told to close our business. We were worrying about where to turn until this idea came,” recalls Emmanuel Logan, who has his shop in the 72nd community in Paynesville. “I can put food on the table of my family from what little I earn from here every day and I must appreciate God for that.”

Street peddlers display face masks for sale in central Monrovia. (Photo: Daily Observer/William Q. Harmon)

Theresa Collins, a seamstress in the Police Academy community, says she makes L$1,000 daily. “The production of masks has kept us going,” she says, sitting behind her sewing machine with a few masks hanging on racks. “It is helping to put food on our table and provides other basic essential things for the upkeep of the family.”

It is not clear how cloth masks started in Liberia, but the Patriotic Entrepreneurs of Liberia (PATEL) claims they first introduced it. Prior to the state of emergency, PATEL worked with hundreds of tailors and seamstresses through the Liberian Tailors Union and began mass-production of masks. The organization first made 6,000 pieces for the Liberia Marketing Association, according to its president Dominic Nimely. “We had to grab this opportunity with our two hands,” he explains. “We knew that our country was in short supply of medical masks so we had to act quickly.” LMA officials did not respond to queries for comment on PATEL’s claim.

Many street sellers, barred by from plying their trade because of the pandemic, have turned to peddling masks. Competition for market is stiffening day by day, giving rise to innovation. Some sellers seal up their masks in plastic as a way to assure customers that the product is unused and free of the coronavirus.

Before the pandemic, James Padmore sold used clothes along the Tubman Boulevard. Now, he buys masks from shop owners for LD$35 and sells them for at least LD$50, selling between 15 and 25 pieces daily. “People [are] no longer buying clothes. Everyone is focusing on how to survive this health crisis,” Padmore says. “So some of us have to change direction.”

Quarthy, the tailor on Capitol Bye-Pass, hopes that the killer-disease is eradicated soon so he can resume normal life. “We made more money when things were normal,” he says, “and we will still do.”

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives as part of our Land Rights and Climate Change Reporting Project. Funding was provided by the American Jewish World Service. The Funder had no say in the story’s content.

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