“Those silly people”, is what I heard people around me say when they saw pictures of people in China or Japan covering their faces with a (surgical) face mask when going out in public. Not anymore, or at least, they won’t say it in public. COVID-19, aka the coronavirus, made it abundantly clear that such hygienic measures are essential. Not only to protect ourselves against others but also -especially with face masks- others against us.
Until two months ago, the majority of us would have laughed at the thought of having to wear a face mask in public. Now, it’ll become the new normal for people all across the globe. Now, in France, a mask will be required on public transport and in schools, in Spain, the mask is also required on public transport, and as of today (4 May 2020), Belgium also requires people using public transport to wear masks the moment they step into the train station.
With countries loosening their measures while the pandemic is still wreaking havoc all across the world, counties are scrambling to get their hands on as many masks as possible, not shying away from political games or downright bullying (Subramanian, 2020).
In a matter of weeks, countries went from considering them an urgent human need to an asset in a global resource grab. the thin material that goes into the well known surgical mask, named meltblown, is now in outrageous demand. Producers of the stuff having backlogs of 2 years (Subramanian, 2020).
Soon China started demanding in-land factories to only produce for the government and not export any meltblown nor face masks. Other countries pursued. The Australian Medical Association advised its government to keep protective gear from foreign buyers. Meanwhile, the US bought face masks at the last minute as flight crew was about to load them onto cargo planes heading for France (”Face masks from China intended for France ‘hijacked’ by US at the last minute”, 2020). Even between European countries, things escalated. France and Germany implemented national laws that declared masks as strategic assets, which meant that if masks were transiting through these countries, bound for elsewhere, they could be appropriated (Subramanian, 2020).
Made in …
With a rush on masks from various countries and tension rising, new and unknown companies spring up like mushrooms. This brings its slew of problems, mainly in the quality department (“Faulty masks. Flawed tests. China’s quality control problem in leading global COVID-19 fight,” 2020).
Many (Chinese) “companies” saw dollar signs and would do anything to sell masks to the West. Because of this lack of quality and the delays in customs, companies that didn’t produce face masks started making them, either upon government request or because they saw the growing market. Multinationals like LVHM, BMW, or smaller local companies here in Belgium have begun making masks for the local market. While this is great, they are usually of the disposable kind and not yet available for you and me. While you can wait for the surgical masks to become more readily available again, there is an alternative: making your own.
Making your own face mask
So, these hand-made face masks, how do you make it? With cotton and elastic or two ribbons.
With a sewing machine or sewn by hand you can get a decent result. Many sites provide patterns and instructions that use multiple layers of cotton, elastic bands, and ordinary thread. In Belgium, there is a dedicated site for making your own face mask: https://maakjemondmasker.be/.
Additionally, the CDC has some guidelines on how to make one yourself as well: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html .
While you can find a lot more examples online, do your due diligence as not all patterns work.
Wearing a mask -be it surgical or home made- can give some protection from droplets you cough or sneeze around. Early reports show (Doremalen, et al., 2020) that the virus can live in droplets in the air for up to one to three hours after an infected individual has left an area. Covering your face will help prevent these droplets from getting into the air and infecting others (Dolcourt, 2020).
While the WHO takes a neutral stance on it, neither for or against the use of masks, they do recommend it for individuals who are sick or those caring for them (“Q&A on COVID-19 and masks,” n.d.). Additionally, The Belgian Federal Ministry of Health and virologists approved the pattern that I’m about to share.
However, know that there isn’t strong scientific evidence that these masks will conform to the face enough to form a seal, or that the filter material inside will work. Standard surgical masks are known to leave gaps. That’s why the WHO and in Belgian the Ministry of Health emphasizes other precautions, like washing your hands and distancing yourself from others, besides wearing a face mask in crowded areas where you can’t keep a safe distance.
Here to stay
While these masks aren’t perfect, it’s easy to imagine that with the unwinding of the lockdown measures, the virus might make a comeback and another lockdown would be catastrophic. In other words, it’s better to protect yourself and others. in other words, these face masks are here to stay. Whatever the new normal might become, there will be masks. They will be available in machines in train stations, people will stash them in sock drawers in every home.
With how countries acted against each other these last months, every country will produce and create their own stock, unwilling to rely any more on the impulses of the international market; Germany, forever ahead of the curve, has already begun (Subramanian, 2020).
When and how to wear face masks
- Subramanian, S. (2020, April 28). How the face mask became the world’s most coveted commodity. the Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/28/face-masks-coveted-commodity-coronavirus-pandemic
- Dolcourt, J. (2020, May 1). Will homemade face masks keep you from getting sick with coronavirus? What to know. CNET. https://www.cnet.com/how-to/will-homemade-face-masks-keep-you-from-getting-sick-with-coronavirus-what-to-know/
- Q&A on COVID-19 and masks. (n.d.). WHO | World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-on-covid-19-and-masks
- Face masks from China intended for France ‘hijacked’ by US at the last minute. (2020, April 2). RFI. https://www.rfi.fr/en/europe/20200402-china-coronavirus-face-mask-france-stolen-us
- Doremalen, N. V., Bushmaker, T., Morris, D. H., Holbrook, M. G., Gamble, A., Williamson, B. N., … Munster, V. J. (2020). Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1. New England Journal of Medicine, 382(16), 1564–1567. doi: 10.1056/nejmc2004973