Myanmar & COVID-19

Mandalay Regional Govt Distributes Free Cloth Masks to Curb COVID-19 in Myanmar

By Zarni Mann 27 April 2020

MANDALAY—The Mandalay regional government has launched a homemade face mask campaign with the goal of distributing more than 300,000 cloth face masks free to the public in the region.

The cloth masks are being sewn by local volunteers and small businesses across Mandalay with the help of the regional government.

According to Mandalay’s mayor, who chairs the region’s COVID-19 surveillance and response team, over 300,000 homemade cloth masks were distributed for free in Mandalay over the past week.

U Ye Lwin told The Irrawaddy that the campaign is aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus and to educate people about the need to wear a mask every time they go out.

“The majority of locals cannot afford disposable surgical masks for everyday use. We’ve learned that cloth masks can prevent infection if used and washed properly, so we decided to distribute them,” he explained.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, disposable surgical masks cost around 50 kyats (US3.5 cents) apiece. However, the price shot up to 700 to 800 kyats due to panic buying of masks and hand sanitizer as the coronavirus outbreak began to spread from China to the other countries.

The scarcity of disposable face masks has forced many people to go out without them.

The mayor said research showing that cloth masks offered some protection from the coronavirus prompted the regional government’s decision to provide locals with free masks.

“If washed and used properly, cloth masks can provide some protection—it’s better than going out without a mask. We want to provide disposable masks free for everyone. However, since that’s impossible, we decided to distribute cloth masks,” the mayor explained. “Something is better than nothing.”

The Ministry of Health and Sports announced in early April that if disposable surgical masks are unavailable, cloth masks could help to prevent or slow the spread of the coronavirus when used and washed properly.

Following the ministry’s announcement, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wrote and shared online about cloth masks she had sewn herself.

The homemade cloth masks distributed with the support of the Mandalay regional government cost around 150 kyats apiece, while disposable surgical face masks cost 300-400 kyats, and imported cloth varieties cost from 500 to 1,500 kyats per piece, currently.

“Our mask campaign will have four phases. In Phase 1 and Phase 2 we distributed the homemade cloth masks for free and educated locals about wearing the masks. We distributed nearly 300,000 cloth masks during those phases,” the mayor said.

During the first two phases of the campaign, the mayor said, locals were taught how to wash cloth masks properly, and to wear the mask every time they go out, as well as the importance of handwashing.

According to the mayor, the first two phases, which focused on distributing cloth masks for free, are complete. In Phase 3, local authorities will fine people who go out without a mask 500 kyats and supply them with a cloth mask. In Phase 4, the fine will be doubled, and cloth masks will continue to be given out.

A local volunteer group sews cloth masks to be distributed to the public for free. / Daw Shwezin Zaw Win

The Mandalay regional government sent orders for masks to local small businesses and volunteer groups. The move is also seen as creating job opportunities for the home-based businesses.

“Since garment factories are closed during the COVID-19 outbreak, we looked for home businesses that could help with the campaign. Moreover, if we sent the orders to garment factories, the cost would be high, and we would not be able to distribute the masks for free,” the mayor explained.

At least three small businesses have accepted the government’s orders for cloth masks.

“The government offered us 150 kyats apiece. We can produce 3,000 masks a day, and the seamstresses can earn 50 kyats apiece. Some ladies who can sew faster could earn from 8,000 to 10,000 kyats a day,” U Aung San Oo, a small business owner in Mandalay’s Amarapura who is producing cloth masks for the government’s campaign, explained to The Irrawaddy.

U Aung San Oo said his sewing house has already delivered 100,000 cloth masks to the regional government.

A number of local social volunteer groups are also sewing cloth masks for the regional government, to be distributed to the public for free.

“We have been sewing cloth masks and distributing them free to locals since March. At one point we stopped, as we were not sure about the level of protection afforded by the cloth masks. But when the Ministry of Health and Sports announced that cloth masks can also be used, and the regional government encouraged us, we resumed,” said Daw Shwezin Zaw Win, a member of a local volunteer group, the Mandalay Women’s Political Force.

The women in her group formed a small team and volunteered to cut, sew, sterilize, pack and distribute the cloth masks.

“We are just a small group that can sew about 300 cloth masks per day. Some donors gave us the cloth, thread and materials required for the masks,” she added.

The sewn masks are sterilized and packed individually with a leaflet carrying washing instructions and advice on preventing the spreads of coronavirus, before being distributed to street hawkers, vendors in local wet markets, motorcycle taxi drivers, delivery workers and laborers in Mandalay.

In Mandalay, some locals are still not wearing masks when going out. People without masks can also be seen at some local wet markets.

Some markets and shopping areas in Mandalay are warning customers to wear masks and are not allowing people without masks to enter. Many wet markets in Mandalay are under the control of the Mandalay City Development Committee (MCDC), which is warning that any person caught without a masks shall be fined 3,000 kyats.

“We have to wear a mask every time. We cannot afford disposable surgical masks for everyday use, as it will cost us a lot. But, if we do not wear a mask, we will be punished and will not be allowed to sell things here,” said Ma Yee Myint, a vendor of vegetables at Phayagyi wet market in Chanmyatharzi Township.

“We are glad that we received the free cloth masks from the MCDC and the social volunteer group. Wearing masks benefits us and our family’s health, after all, so we will follow all the instructions.”

Currently, Myanmar has recorded 146 COVID-19 cases. Five people have died and nine have recovered and been discharged from hospital.

In Mandalay, three confirmed cases are being treated at Kandawnadi Hospital and are in stable condition. One person has recovered.

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