Africa: Can African Tailors Help End COVID-19 Mask Shortages?

Global Mamas, a Ghanaian NGO that specializes in colorful household goods and clothing, has switched all production to African-print face masks.
21 April 2020

Tailors in Nigeria's Abia state are part of a continent-wide mobilization of citizens to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) needed for the fight against the spread of SARSCoV-2 (new Corona virus).

At a Presidential Task Force briefing in Abuja earlier this month, epidemiologist and Nigeria Centre for Disease Control Director Chikwe Ihekweazu told media that officials were looking into ways to make it possible for most of the country's 200 million people to wear masks to protect each other from COVID-19. Physical distancing, he said, remains important, but the country's most vulnerable people are often crowded together in ways that make separation impossible. And many people, in both urban and rural areas, have little access to clean water and soap for the handwashing that is central to preventing infection.

Daily Trust newspaper, quoting CNN, says tailors in Aba, Abia state's main centre of commerce, are using local fabrics, cotton, and polypropylene to sew by hand PPE such as overalls and face masks.

Fashion designers are joining the mask-making effort. In Nigeria's largest city, designer Tiannah Toyin Lawani said she opened her Lagos house to tailors making masks she designed using African fabrics. She promoted the glittery creations on her Facebook page and to her nearly one million Instagram followers.

But providing masks for the masses is going to take more projects like that in Abia state – and the work can provide employment to people left jobless by the crisis.

CNN's Aisha Salaudeen reported that the state government provided a grant to about 100 tailors to help them scale up their production. She quoted Sam Hart, the director-general of the Abia State Marketing and Quality Management Agency, as saying the face masks are intended for ordinary citizens rather than health workers. The tailors have manufactured 200,000 masks and 3,000 overalls.

On 14 April the NCDC issued its mask advisory, urging Nigerians to use masks, particularly when in groups. "The primary rationale for the advice on face masks," the advisory said, "is to prevent those who are infected but asymptomatic from spreading the virus." It cautioned that masks should not be regarded as an excuse to ignore physical distancing, handwashing and other means of reducing the spread.

The same day, Abia's governor, Okezie Ikpeazu, ordered that all residents of the state should wear face masks in places such as markets, petrol stations, shops and shopping malls. Online newspaper Premium Times published an article quoting some state residents as resistant to the regulation but also quoted supporters, including religious leaders and health workers.

Orders to wear masks and public support for making them is widespread beyond Nigeria. In Kinshasa, capital of Democratic Republic of Congo, mask wearing is mandatory.

Kenyan fashion and furniture designers are turning their skills to making masks for the country's poor, the Star newspaper reports.

Rwanda, the first African country to impose a total nationwide lockdown, has arrested hundreds of people for violating strict stay-at-home restrictions and has mandated mask wearing when outside. Talented tailors who had been sewing colorful products aimed at tourists - now nonexistent - have turned their skills to making attractive, affordable masks, New Times reports.

The Bombchel Factory in Liberia employs women who have lived through war and through Ebola to make comfortable, cotton face masks that are washable. In addition to providing masks for people in communities, they also give them to those healthcare workers who don't have the most protective medical masks. Research shows that any face covering helps prevent the spread of the virus.

In Ghana, Global Mamas, a NGO that specializes in colorful household goods and clothing, has switched production to African-print face masks.

In South Africa, which has the most documented COVID-19 cases, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases issued guidelines for making fabric face masks. News organization GroundUp published an article by a paediatric respiratory disease specialist urging: "Start making and wearing masks today. It could save your life and the lives of your loved ones."

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