What’s the conversation around masks?

By Dimithri Wijesinghe

The conversation around the use of masks during the prevailing coronavirus pandemic has been brought up by the World Health Organisation (WHO) now and again, providing that wearing masks is not a necessity.

The concern has been that there is a shortage of medical-grade protective gear. Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist working with the WHO, stated that globally, there is a “significant shortage” of medical supplies including personal protective equipment (PPE) for doctors.

As of 30 March, WHO officials stated that they stand by their recommendation that people need not wear face masks unless they have contracted Covid-19 or are caring for someone ill. “There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit,” said WHO Health Emergencies Programme Executive Director Dr. Michael Ryan.

While the WHO recommendation remains based on the shortage of medical supplies, which the entire world is facing at present, we spoke to State Pharmaceuticals Corporation (SPC) Chairman and consultant neurosurgeon Dr. Prasanna Gunasena about Sri Lanka’s stance on the matter.

In Sri Lanka, while some high-risk districts such as Colombo, Gamapaha, Kalutara, and Jaffna continue to be under curfew until further notice (at the time of going to print), the curfew was lifted in a number of districts (19 other districts according to news reports) recently and re-imposed on 1 April.

However, when delivery services are underway in areas under curfew as well as areas where curfew has been lifted to allow people to restock and seek medical or other assistance, we are likely to see pockets of people gathering. In such instances, Dr. Gunasena advises that wearing masks is a necessity.

If you are a delivery personnel or work in Rajya Osu Sala outlets, banks, police stations, railway departments, etc., then there is a risk of community spread of the virus. Therefore, it is advised to wear a mask, especially in the aforementioned conditions.

He noted that in an effort of community sampling, there were 10 persons identified with the virus, who proved to be asymptomatic carriers.

Surgical masks vs. community masks

Dr. Gunasena shared that the concern by WHO is very real; that there is in fact a serious shortage of medical-grade protective gear including surgical masks. While Sri Lanka too is likely to encounter this issue largely, he shared that the island at present has received the raw materials from China in order to produce medical-grade masks required by medical professionals treating Covid-19 patients. As such, Sri Lanka has the capacity to go into production. He said that surgical masks are very precious at present in the world.

However, there is another type of mask being produced – the community face mask. This mask is relevant for those looking to leave their homes when the curfew is lifted or venture into a supermarket, hospital, etc.

Sri Lanka Apparel Exporters Association (SLAEA) Chairman Rehan Lakhany shared that PPE, which are also in short supply, are currently being produced under the helpful organisation of the Viyathmaga team. In this effort, the SLAEA hopes to produce a total of two million community masks and over 300,000 have already been handed over to the SPC.

The fabric to produce the mask has been donated by Teejay Lanka PLC, a local knitted fabric manufacturer, while the high-density polyethylene (HDPE) to produce coverall protective suits was donated by PolyPak Secco Ltd., a Sri Lankan plastic products manufacturer.

Lakhany stated that 14 factories including Original Apparel (Pvt.) Ltd., Omega Line Group, and Miami Clothing (Pvt.) Ltd. have been commissioned to produce these masks, adding that the SLAEA is deeply grateful to the apparel industry along with the donors for coming together in these difficult times.

Dr. Gunasena said the masks are three-ply with a thickness of 120 GS and are most effective in preventing the spread of the virus. While surgical masks must be made with non-woven materials, for the purpose of preventing the community spread, the woven materials are more than sufficient.

He further stated that the SPC will be distributing them to government and private organisations and if you wish to receive them, you may contact the SPC. He added that as the masks are reusable, one only needs to rinse it with soap, thoroughly sun-dry, and lightly iron for reuse.

Pvt. companies doing their part

Private apparel companies have been instrumental in providing protective gear for communities.

PolyPak Secco Ltd. Production Manager Herath Bandara stated that they have donated six tonnes of HDPE for the production of protective coveralls for medical professionals.

Teejay Lanka PLC General Manager – European Brands, Corporate Communications, and CFR Samadhi Weerakoon shared that in addition to the company contributing Rs. 20 million worth of fabric for the manufacture of masks, the company has also employed their research and development team to come up with a sustainable solution to provide medical-grade apparel.

Hirdaramani Group Director Siddarth Hirdaramani, speaking to The Sunday Morning Brunch, shared that while they have been working with doctors from the Ministry of Health (original design idea by Dr. Udaya De Silva) to design and develop appropriate protective gear for front line workers since the onset of the virus in Sri Lanka, they have allocated several key factories outside the designated high-risk districts to be modified and upgraded with specific health and safety measures in order to start producing the products.

The group has since re-developed the product for scaled production with the support of the Joint Apparel Association Forum Sri Lanka (JAAFSL). As of now, the group has delivered approximately 1,800 medical coverall gowns to the Ministry of Health and several hospitals across the country, and are continuing production aiming to finish over 7,000 pieces by mid-April.

Furthermore, sharing a somewhat hopeful message, Hirdaramani said: “As long as we can secure the raw materials, we have enough design and technical knowledge to produce good-quality protective gear as required. We believe there will be large demand for these products and we will support them to produce the maximum quantities from our existing facilities.”

PHOTOS Saman Abesiriwardana