The coronavirus: Why I am sewing my own cloth masks

Before I go into masks, just a reminder that good personal hygiene is far more important than any mask. This includes washing our hands frequently with water and soap. Where there is no access to water and soap, use sanitizer or wet wipes instead, if available.

Also try to avoid touching your face unless your hands are freshly washed. I was surprised to note how often I was touching my face before arresting the action midway or too late, and also by how difficult it is to break the habit. But we all need to seriously try break this habit.

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This is what the masks I’ve sewn look like.

I own a sewing machine. Though my sewing machine ‘skills’ are wonky, they’ll have to do. I haven’t tried hand-sewing one. I imagine it will not only take longer, but harder to do. But I might give it a go to see what that’s like.
The template I use features a pocket in the design of the mask to insert an extra layer for added protection.
That extra layer can be an anti-bacterial wet wipe like this one (hang-dry them first). As this is not biodegradable, I lean more towards just kitchen paper towels or even toilet paper. Whatever you choose, they should always be disposed of after every wear.
The disposable layer being inserted into the pocket.
What it looks like when worn. Presenting: a model from my Botanical Silhouette Spring Summer 2020 Collection! Kidding.

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Click any of the numbered links below to go straight to the reasons why I’ve sewn my own cloth masks.

1. Surgical masks have long sold out

2. Wearing masks is more about protecting others from our own cough or sneeze

3. Cloth Masks are better than No Masks, and besides, Surgical Masks are not perfect either

4. Wearing our own cloth masks leave more surgical masks to the medical personnel, the sick and others who need them more

5. Cloth masks are more environmentally friendly

Also,

6. Where I got the idea and instructions on sewing the cloth masks.

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It has been almost two months now since I was first struck with waves of shock and worry as news about the coronavirus turned worse and worse as it continued to unfold.

Here in Singapore, the first case was confirmed on 23rd January, involving a 66-year-old Chinese national from Wuhan who flew in from Guangzhou, China with nine companions, some of whom went on to be the first cases in neighbouring Malaysia two days later on 25th January after they had moved on there.

I just came across online on the Australian news.com.au on a post published just yesterday that “the very first coronavirus case in China can be traced back to November 17“. However, scientist stressed that the patient, a 55-year-old from China’s Hubei province, was not ‘patient zero’.

As of writing, Singapore has 212 cases (97 of which have recovered) while Malaysia has 238 cases (35 recovered). Neither country has deaths from the virus, thank God.

1. Surgical Masks have long sold out

By Chinese New Year on 25th January, two days after Singapore’s first confirmed case, surgical masks had sold out at many shops here. It didn’t help that back then many Chinese nationals living in Singapore were buying up masks to send back to their loved ones in China. It had probably been happening for some time by then as Chinese nationals were probably more aware of the looming medical crisis than the rest of the world.

Until today I have never managed to buy a single mask for myself.

Until today, it is still very difficult to get them. At a Johor Bahru pharmacy I’ve been to recently, purchase is rationed to a packet of only five masks per person in the queue. Stock is available only twice a day at specific times, and there are limited packets available per timing, e.g. only 50, so only the first 50 people get to buy them. Naturally, queues form long before the specified times of availability.

I have never joined these queues and refuse to do it because I think it’s crazy to put ourselves in a crowded place more than we have to. It’s bad enough to have to travel on crowded buses and trains for work, but even that is only about an hour each time. Queuing for masks can be for a couple or several hours, in close proximity to people who may cough or sneeze close to you.

Until today, the only surgical masks I managed to get my hands on are the four pieces given free by the Singapore government, and I was required to go to a designated Community Centre to collect them. I was also required to present my Identity Card as the disposable surgical masks were strictly limited to only four pieces for each household. They are meant to be worn only when one is unwell.

The four pieces of disposable surgical masks provided to every household.

I agree with the opinion that we should wear surgical masks only when unwell, because it is important surgical masks are made available to people who need them more, like medical personnel, the sick, their caretakers, etc. However, we can always wear cloth masks which we can make ourselves.

2. Wearing masks is more about protecting others from our own cough or sneeze.

Yes, I’ve heard it many times: wearing masks is not likely to be effective in preventing the coronavirus. But that’s not the reason why I insist on wearing my cloth mask, especially in packed places like public transport or the supermarket.

The problem is that if we are infected with the virus, we may not know it and it may be some days after infection that we start to feel unwell. In the meantime, if we don’t make an effort to keep our mouth covered when we cough or sneeze, we may spread the virus to the people around us.

So, a handkerchief or a tissue, then? One or two more coughs or sneezes may happen before we finally fish that handkerchief or tissue out from our pocket or bag. I prefer to have my cloth mask on.

Until today, I still come across at least one person practically every day I am out, who don’t have the courtesy to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze. I have long been bothered by this. Virus pandemic or not, it’s just disgusting and a display of such bad manners.

3. Cloth Masks are better than No Masks, and besides, Surgical Masks are not perfect either.

Compared to cloth masks, surgical masks feature superior ‘3-ply non-woven fabric’.

As outlined by this article on healthline.com, while surgical masks “prevent large droplets of bodily fluids that may contain viruses from escaping via the nose and mouth” and that they “also protect against splashes and sprays from others, such as those from sneezes and coughs“, surgical masks are “fairly loosely fitting“.

Most also open pretty widely at the sides when worn, as I have noticed from personal experience.

In addition to that, masks are unable to protect us from getting airborne virus particles, from a cough or a sneeze, into our eyes, anyway. So, using masks to protect ourselves from others becomes even less of the main idea of wearing them.

(Related: The Guardian – Can a face mask stop Coronavirus? Covid-19 myths busted.)

4. Wearing cloth masks leave more surgical masks to the medical personnel and others who need them more.

This is a very important point that bears repeating. It is crucial that doctors, nurses, ambulance staff and all other medical staff have access to a constant supply of surgical masks, N95 respirator masks and all the other protective equipment they need. Obviously, if they run out, they are going to get infected very easily due to the nature of the job.

We definitely do not want an escalation of this virus pandemic to reach truly nightmarish levels in the scenario that our doctors, nurses and other medical staff are dropping out of action like flies because they are infected and have to be quarantined themselves.

On top of that, there are many other people who need a constant supply of surgical masks urgently like the already infected, and their caretakers. We should also consider that public servants like the police, military and other such agencies need these masks to be available, in the event that they need to do crowd control and other security work should the situation require it.

5. Cloth Masks are washable, reusable, and therefore more environmentally friendly

Surgical masks are made with ‘non-woven fabric’, and according to this article, the material most commonly used to make them is polypropelene, a form of plastic material. And then there is the elastic ear loop commonly found in surgical masks which is definitely not biodegradable.

Much of our planet, including our oceans, is heavily polluted as it is. With the virus pandemic now on, just imagine the millions of disposable surgical masks being discarded every single day around the world, adding on to the pollution every single day. If the millions of people who are wearing disposable surgical masks wear washable cloth masks instead, that will not only greatly help the medical personnel on the frontline and other people who need the surgical masks more urgently, but it will greatly help our planet as well.

6. Where I got the idea and instructions on sewing the masks

The idea is from an asiaone.com article I came across titled “Doctor recommends making your own cloth face mask with air ‘filter’ – here’s how to do it.

It was about how Taiwanese anesthesiologist Dr Chen Xiaoting recommends using cloth masks, provided they are used correctly and washed often. Unlike ordinary cloth masks, his feature a piece of non-woven fabric inserted into an opening of the mask.

The instructions on how to make the cloth masks with the opening are from another Facebook post by a Facebook user called ‘Button Tree‘ that was also featured in the asiaone.com article.

The instructions of the tutorial are in Mandarin, and as I do not know Mandarin, I got the idea to copy-and-paste them onto Google Translate! Voila. Literal translations can be a bit dodgy and weird, but I decidedly got enough of the gist of it.

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