Hannah N. Geterminah
As communities and businesses braced themselves for the unceasing fight against the Coronavirus, especially the emergence of the contagious Delta variant, it was common knowledge that the wearing of facemasks—in addition to other social distancing measures—are crucial for curbing the further spread of the virus.
But the possibility to make medically recommended masks available to Liberia and the public is hardly non-existent as those were in short supply due to global demand.
Like other businesses, tailor shops were ordered closed by the government as part of its state of emergency mandate imposed on April 8, 2020—an effort intended to discourage mass gatherings and make people stay at home.
But out of this disappointment came an opportunity for some in the tailoring business. The innovative thought to turn their attention to the making of facemasks was very helpful to the fight against COVID-19.
Using readily available African textiles, they began producing thousands of facemasks that were on sale in the streets in weeks after the closure of their businesses.
“There was a shortage of masks and I had seen samples of facemasks made of cloth in other African countries on the internet,” Mac Quarthy, a 32-year-old tailor who runs a tailoring business on the Capitol Bye-Pass in Monrovia, told reporters last year during the height of the first phase of the outbreak.
Quarthy, aliased “Mr. Designer,” said he wanted to use his talent and locally available fabric to show that tailors can also contribute to the response to the pandemic while making little income.
With medical masks in short supply, the ones being produced by tailors like Quarthy are now widely used in Monrovia and other places. They can be found on the streets, in marketplaces, and shops. These tailor-made facemasks are one of the most coveted commodities in the country today, a symbol of Liberia’s response to the pandemic.
Like during the first phase of the outbreak, the government has mandated everyone in the public to wear masks in a bid to help curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. One hundred and forty-eight people have died from coronavirus so far from a total of 5396 cases as of July 18, 2021.
“We need to safeguard our people against the virus with the introduction of public masks wearing but we are experiencing an acute shortage of medical masks,” former Director-General of the National Public Health Institute (NPHIL), Dr. Mosoka Fallah, said in an interview during the lockdown in 2020.
“We, therefore, have no other alternative but to engage in the production of facemasks with local resources. This will help in protecting the country.”
Dr. Fallah has since been relieved of his post by President George Weah for some procedural lapses amidst the national response to the virus.
Recently, the government in partnership with Last Mile Health began working with small businesses to produce 200,000 facemasks to be shared within the counties. This was when the Delta variant surfaced inflating the country’s caseloads.
One of the lucky small businesses selected was Charney’s Couture, a fashion and tailor boutique owned and operated by Sheo Charney.
“I understood this was business, but it meant a lot more to me, it means having an opportunity to help save lives,” told lib9news, a local online news platform of her selection.
Charney’s Couture was tasked to produce 50,000 pieces of masks within a few weeks. She knew to meet the deadline she would need to scale her business rapidly. “I started to call other women tailors that I’ve worked within the past, from Red Light to GSA road communities, they were excited to be part of such a project, and it took on a life of its own,” said Charney.
Women are hard workers, when we put our mind to something, we get it done,” Charney said, “At times we worked 24 hours to meet the mask deadlines within a short period of time, we are tired, but we know this is bigger than us.”
She is grateful to the government and its partner organization not because she’s being empowered, but for their efforts in ensuring the citizens of Liberia are provided masks to keep themselves protected. She also pleads with citizens to wear their masks in public spaces and follow all health protocols to keep themselves and
Despite its popularity, some users of the locally produced masks have expressed qualms about their comfort and safety.
“It is too tight and it makes breathing difficult,” Emmanuel Garswa, a motorcyclist in Paynesville, said, “They [tailors] need to adjust it a bit.”
Tailors have since acted on their users’ feedback to enhance breathing while maintaining customers’ taste.
In an interview last year, Dr. Fallah acknowledged the limitations of the locally produced masks but noted it is saferto wear a mask than without them. “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 urged people to have at least two cloth masks to wash one while they use the other one. “We want our people to ensure that the masks are washed with soap and hot water, rinsed thoroughly, and if possible ironed,” Dr. Fallah said.
“These are meant to disinfect the masks.” He does not recommend them for health workers working with COVID-19 patients or the patients themselves and said only medical practitioners should wear surgical masks.
Surgical masks are for healthcare providers and patients in hospital wards, where the risk of catching the virus is high.
Due to the economic difficulties in the country, many people, especially youth, have resorted to selling the masks. Competition for the market is stiffening day by day, giving rise to innovation. Some sellers seal up their masks in plastic to avoid spreading coronavirus. The masks are now sold between LD$20 and LD$50.
Boys sell masks in Sinkor, Monrovia.
Theresa Blamo, a seamstress at ELWA Junction, is hoping that that the disease is eradicated soon, so that Liberians can restart their normal lives. “We made more money when things were normal and we will still do,” she said, “I also believe that our contribution to this fight has been worthy. When it ends, at least we will be remembered for our little contribution.”
This story was produced with support from Journalists for Human Rights (JHR), through the Mobilizing Media in the Fight Against COVID-19 in partnership with FrontPage Africa and The Stage Media