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Face Masks: How Poor Awareness May Frustrate Fight Against Coronavirus

Stuck at home because of the lockdown, Akinte Omotola, 30, has had to contend with the reality imposed by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic which has brought the world to its knees. Her once-promising clothing couture which has been an indisputable fashion source for women in Ogba area of Lagos State in the last four years also slumped. No business. She had to close following the stay-at-home order issued by President Muhammadu Buhari, which began on March 30.

The president, in one of the nationwide broadcasts, stated that the decision to shut down businesses would cause hardship and inconvenience to many people, but justified that it was a matter of life and death.

The order cuts countless people who live hand-to-mouth in the country off their major source of income, but Omotola remains unruffled. Instead, she cuddled it. She had exuded so much resilience during her formative years at the Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba Akoko, that she believed her business would rise again.

But it was not long. Like many other Nigerians, Omotola who specialises in all kinds of clothes now makes fabric face mask which she markets on social media to her potential clients.

“The beginning of the lockdown was hard on me because I couldn’t deliver nor pick up fabrics from my clients. I had already made dresses that were ready for collection but there was no access to reach clients plus clients stopped putting pressure on me, they had other essentials to focus their cash on than wears.

“Then, I couldn’t even ask for money even though they have fabrics here with me. I couldn’t access tailoring accessories as well because all shops were under lock.” She reeled out an ordeal in an interview conducted via WhatsApp.

Opportunity in Adversity

For about four weeks of the deafening silence that engulfed her work, she kept advancing her online presence, it was like a flicker in the night for Omotola when the Lagos State government mandated the use of a face mask as part of measures lined for the “phased and gradual easing of the lockdown” in the state. Omotola delved into it hook, line and sinker.

She started sewing them in varieties to meet the demand of Nigerians who could barely afford surgical masks whose price has flared up across stores as the pandemic continues to tighten its grip.

“With time, I diverted to the production of facemasks and it has been a unique story. It’s not like I supply every day. When clients chat me up, I give them two days to deliver. For instance, someone ordered a piece which will be delivered on Friday. Yesterday, I had to deliver sixteen pieces to two different locations. There have been talks with some companies as well who want facemasks delivered to them.

“So, it’s not like I get buzzed every day, but I produce as clients order, particularly in bulk. In fact, I have dispatchers (registered companies) who deliver to a different location in the state.  It’s quite a successful business for me.”

In a nationwide broadcast on April 27th, President Muhammadu Buhari affirmed that the lockdown in the FCT Abuja, Lagos and Ogun State had incurred a heavy economic loss. As a result, he announced a “phased and gradual easing” of the lockdown to allow some businesses to resume activities. But to contain the spread of the virus, the new directive requires everyone to wear face masks in public.

Within that twinkle, a lot of startups are seeing fresh opportunities emerge in this pandemic. Just like Omotola, Igho Sampson, 26, is another Nigerian seamstress who is trudging through deep snow to build a tough mound in Abuja. She ventures into face masks after her fashion business had suffered a downturn as a result of the lockdown.

According to her, the lockdown stiffened her work that demands no longer flowed stupendously as they used to be. She shut down her shop to find solace at home where she makes the masks, using different fabrics including Ankara and Adire. “The year started off well for our brand, I must confess. We had several patronages in the space of three months and we were getting choked up and were preparing for bigger space but most of the requests were wedding Aso-Ebi and ready-to-wear but since the pandemic caused a lockdown, we had a fall from demand there were no longer requests. Most people had no occasion or office to go until the mask business surfaced and we got busy again,” she recounted.

Staying Safe In Style, But How Safe?

Many Nigerian fashion designers are turning face masks into apparel more than a shield. They now add appealing styles since it is fast becoming an everyday accessory.

According to the NCDC, fabric face masks are recommended due to the global shortage of medical face masks. A fabric face mask, made of everyday fabric, can act as a barrier to respiratory droplets but cannot completely protect one from COVID-19.

They are only effective when used with proper hand-washing measures, avoiding large gatherings and adhering with physical distancing by maintaining a distance of 2 metres, the agency posited.

Also, in a “do-it-yourself” guideline for making clothe face masks, the agency recommends two 10”x6” rectangles of cotton fabric, urging the public to wear masks made with at least 3 layers of fabric.

Similarly, the Standard Organisation of Nigeria (SON), through its twitter handle @SONNigeria, reeled out guidelines on making quality barrier masks for makers and users of face mask in the country.

The agency is the sole statutory body that is vested with the responsibility of standardising and regulating the quality of all products in Nigeria. According to the guidelines, it must be a single layer or multilayer composite made of fabrics with inner filter; the inner part touching the skin should be colourless. The part of the barrier mask likely to be in contact with users must be free of sharp edges and blurs. It should be colourless (colours are monogenic). The multiple layers should be stitched to hold the inner filter in place.

However, many tailors around the country who are making brisk business sewing facemasks are unaware of these guidelines by the regulatory body

A tailor, presumably in her thirties, Okoye Precious, advanced the clothe facemask she makes fall into two categories: disposable and reusable masks. She posited fabric mask is, to a larger extent, potent as the medical masks. “Some people feel Ankara face mask has zero protection, but it is not true. Some manufacturers use filters for the production of the facemasks, which make them as good as the surgical mask.

“I use filters, but not for all. I have the disposable masks, which do not have any filter. And there are those I fold while sewing them.”

Though Omotola makes use of filters while sewing her facemasks, they come in varieties. “I make nose mask with filter; I have varieties depending on the client’s order. I make then in plain cotton fabric (black, navy blue), jean fabric (soft jean), and our African fabrics.”

Also, facemasks which this reporter bought randomly did not meet any of the guidelines. They were neither properly stitched nor folded, this reporter observed.

“We don’t double it. If we do, it would be difficult to breathe. In fact, people were complaining of the material we were using until we change it to a lighter textile,” a tailor whose facemask cost N50 said with assurance visibly plastered on her oval face. She also stated that she is unaware of the guidelines published by SON.

Nigerians who spoke with our reporter stated that they are getting used to the new order.

At Oje market, Ibadan, social distancing protocol was flagrantly abused. Michael Amusan, a tricyclist, was bellowing at commuters who were haphazardly pushing one another to get on board. He perched his fabric facemask below the chin so his voice could blare through the market’s overbearing noise.

“Whatever the government wants, even if we are not satisfied with it, we have to obey it. Our union has also mandated us and whoever flouts it will face the tune. It is only when we wear the masks that we can implore our passengers to wear,” he said more or less philosophical.

Ayomide Agbaje, a student, has been putting on face masks to shield himself from the pandemic while maintaining other safety measures. He uses the surgical mask against the clothe mask since the former proves effective against infections by reducing the rate of transmission through respiratory droplets.

“This is a new world order and rather unusual, but it is just what it is. I use the surgical facemask and not the one made from fabrics. Not only that, it allows for proper breathing, but it is also confirmed to be the most effective when preventing oneself in the public from any contamination through the air. However, I sometimes find it difficult to use when I am heavily gasping for breath due to extreme tiredness. I will then remove it for some time and put it on after restoring to the normal breathing condition.”

But when a motorist who took this reporter – and thought he was a random member of the public– was asked why the face masks he wore was bedraggled, he parried it to narrate how the mask has the pass to his daily income.

According to him, he is only putting on the mask to beat security check mounted across the city by the state government to ensure compliance

For Dr Ummah Muhammad, a medical microbiologist, facemasks alone cannot contain the spread of the virus, which according to her is one of many precautions against infections. However, she added that most of the clothe facemasks do not meet the standard specification and could place users at risk of infection, as materials used for the mask would barely withstand a testing method.

“Facemasks alone cannot guarantee safety, especially when it is not properly used. But wearing the mask especially when going out during this pandemic is pertinent. Companies manufacturing facemasks have their unique designs and instruction for the proper use and must have used an appropriate sterilising method which these locally made facemasks lack.

She, therefore, cautioned people who rely on the locally made masks due in part to poverty which cast a bleak shadow on their ability to get medical masks to ensure proper sterilization and disposal of the masks just as she advanced the public should imbibe proper hand-washing measures.

“For people that rely on these masks, especially in resource-poor areas, the masks should be washed after every exposure with detergent or disinfectant for at least 10 minutes and should avoid constantly touching or readjustment of the masks as pathogens contaminating the hands can easily be transferred to the face masks.”

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