Amid Shortage Of Protective Gear, Masks And Sanitizers, People In North East Craft Their Own

People in the north east are now scrambling to equip themselves against the deadly contagion of coronavirus pandemic by taking to DIY projects to make Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) across the region.

India   |   16 April 2020 11:55 AM GMT / Updated : 2020-05-07T20:29:14+05:30
Reporter : Linda Chhakchhuak
Amid Shortage Of  Protective Gear, Masks And Sanitizers, People In North East Craft Their Own

The sound of hundreds of sewing machines has now replaced the cacophony of agitations over the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 that rent the air in the states of the north eastern states of India just a few months earlier as the people churn out homemade facemasks to protect themselves and their neighbors.

People are now scrambling to equip themselves against the deadly contagion of coronavirus pandemic by taking to DIY (do it yourself) projects to make Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) across the region. Remoteness and ignorance has left majority of the population including doctors and health workers in the region without any protective gear against the deadly COVID-19 after the country went into a sudden lockdown on March 22, 2020 sending the supply chains haywire.

People of this region, however, have been used to staying under curfew for months due to the agitations and conflicts that have wracked these frontier states for decades. They have learnt how to tackle shortage and scarcity of basic essentials.

While other regions of the country are helplessly running short of PPE and hand sanitizers, two of the crucial equipment required in the fight to tackle the virus, and manufacturers have failed to meet the demands. People in the northeast, often accused of always being on the dole, are now showing their mettle by rolling up their sleeves, using their talents and making these PPE themselves. Some are volunteers while others also see it as an opportunity to support their livelihood.

From the steep hilltop towns of Mizoram in the southernmost tip of North East India to the sparsely populated hills of Arunahcal Pradesh in the north, from the cloud mountains of Meghalaya to the perpetually perturbed state of Nagaland, the people of the small tribes and communities in these states have dropped everything else to jump into the efforts to save lives by making their own facemasks, face shields, hand sanitizers, full protective gowns and other protective gear for vulnerable frontline health, sanitation and police workers in the fight against the pandemic.

Thousands of health workers including doctors, Police, ASHA, sanitation workers, those working to delivering essential items, truckers, etc, who are at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19 are forced to go on duty without PPE, not to speak of the need of ordinary folk for face-masks, which, of late, has now been made compulsory by a notification from the Government of India.

Before April 4, the country's health authorities discouraged healthy people from wearing the face masks but this seems to have changed. A Government of India notification mandates that everyone should wear face masks as a precautionary measure to safeguard against the virus. Over and above that, it has shared the World Health Organisation's 'do it yourself' manual on how to make masks asking everyone to either make one or get one.

But much before the advisory by the Government, the people in various corners of the region were already stitching their own masks and sharing it with others. The latest to pitch in was a 95 year old woman, Nghakliani of Mizoram, a tailor by profession, who started stitching masks and gave them for free to nurses and others in need.She also contributed her monthly pension of about Rs 14,000 to the chief minister's relief fund of her state.

Remote and out of the way it may be from the metros of the country by geographical standards, but Changlang District of Arunachal Pradesh has turned out to be a front runner in the race to adhere to the safety protocols against COVID-19. Women in Changlang have already organized themselves to stitch face masks. Hundreds of them belonging to Self Help Groups are stitching masks and sharing them at a nominal cost.

The Federation of Self Help Groups initiated under the umbrella of the ongoing North Eastern Regional Community Resource Management Project (NERCORMP) with their local non-government organization partners, have produced hundreds of masks for people who are in panic because they cannot get it in the market due to lack of supplies from outside. Even if there are some masks these are the high end varieties which are expensive and unaffordable for common folk.

Nanju Simai Tikhak , the young Business Development Officer of NERCORMP in Changlang District said that it all started earlier this month with an experimental mask made by the master trainer of the Nightingale Self Help Group, Pisiliu Singpho who stitched one for herself.

She said that Ms Singppho, who is also a leader of their local partner NGO, Bordumsa Mahila Mandal, wanted a mask but could not find one in the market. She decided to stitch one for herself using the instructions published in the WHO manual. She used cotton to make the three layered reusable mask and went to work wearing it.

When others saw it, they wanted one and this set off the SHG on a mask stitching spree because of the high demand. Most important it costs a nominal Rs.40 .It was a hit.

The masks soon caught the eye of the District Administration with the Deputy Commissioner, R K Sharma, finding it appropriate ordering some hundreds for his staff and others working for the administration. The idea caught on and other circles in the district followed suit with these local authorities ordering the facemasks from the several SHGs spread across the district, including Namsai, a neighbouring district.

She said that before the onset of global pandemic the SHGs had been doing quite well making and selling sanitary napkins, something they were they were trained to do.

"But with their tailoring talents they could hardly ignore the emergency over Coronavirus and the panic for masks in the entire country" Singppho said. She said that the women are well aware of the need for sanitation and hygiene while making the masks. They have enough cloth sourced from Rajasthan and Assam in stock before the pandemic started, she said.

Pisilu Sinhpho, master trainer of Federation Nightingale Self Help Group, Bordumsa circle, Changlang District, Arunachal Pradesh models the face visor she has been making for doctors and nurses in her district.

But this is not all, Pisiliu Singpho has come up with an innovative way of making face shields which was lacking in the hospitals and health centres. This has become a sought after item by the local doctors and nurses who need to be protected while doing their job as one never knows who is a carrier of the virus. This safety equipment is unavailable in the market and with no hope for supplies landing in because of the COVID19 lockdown, Singpho's offerings were grabbed up by the local health workers and doctors who have been handling patients without the protective gear.

The SHG Federation with 100 members can make about 150 face masks a day. So far they have supplied more than 700 and are churning out more. Other SHGs have taken the cue and are fully engaged in the effort to equip their people with this highly necessary safety gear.

Meanwhile, another farmer-entrepreneur, from neighboring Namsai Disrict , Chow Amat Namchoom has been doing a yeoman's service there by making hand sanitizers, another scarce but necessary item, and he has been donating it to the various departmental workers. Namchoom is a well know figure in the state and an award winning entrepreneur.

Chow Amat Namchoom, an entrepreneur, has been making the aloe vera hand sanitizer

He told this reporter that when he heard of the COVID-19 pandemic, he felt aggrieved and was worried that the people in the various government offices did not use hand sanitizers. He was surprised that they were not using them since hand washing and use of hand sanitizers is said to be the only safe guard against the spread of the virus. But then he came to know that sanitizers were unavailable in the market.

Wondering how he could chip in to help, he realized that he had a good group of aloe vera, which is used in hand sanitizers, lying un-harvested in his fields because of the CAA agitations which had brought life virtually to a standstill. He along with his wife, Nang Nikhita Namchoom, harvested a gunny bag full, juiced it, bought ethanol and glycerine from the market to manufacture the mixture for the hand sanitizer on their own.

Before this, he had taken expert opinion whether such a mixture would really provide protection from the Coronavirus. He also sought advice from his brother, a doctor by profession who told him it can be safely done, Namchoom then scoured the internet for instructions for the right mix.

The produced several litres of hand sanitizers and donated it to the district administration.

This immediately caught their attention. They in turn handed over to him 10 bottles of Ethanol containing about 4 and half liters of the chemical, which they had been hoarding hoping to make hand sanitizers for themselves. They asked him to produce more with that. Using the same formula with the aloevera he produced several litres, part of which he handed over to the district administration and the rest he donated to the district health department and distributed a part to the policemen on duty at various check gates and points of contact with public.

When asked what made him do all this, he said, "This Coronavirus is very fast spreading. Just a touch can spread it. While visiting the government offices for my errands I noticed the vulnerability of the staffers who were working without hand sanitizers. They are dealing with constant flow of people and touching things all the time. How many times can one go and wash hands while working. So there I saw an acute need for hand sanitizers for them."

He said he was worried that if one of them was infected, it would spread so fast, first to his clients, then his family and then the others in their circle. He could not live with this imaginary nightmare and had decided to do what he could to stop it".

Next he wants to give hand sanitizers to the shopkeepers in Namsai town, who he figured are the most vulnerable and also have the potential of being a hot-spot spreader. He dreads to think how far and wide it would spread if one shopkeeper caught the virus.

Namsai is a very sensitive area with a flow of all kinds of people which needs the people and the administration to be extra careful here. Besides, the district has different tribal groups with tiny populations. They could be wiped out if the virus spread there. The indigenous tribal population of Namsai numbers just about 31,000.

All these efforts have become all the more urgent as a COVID-19 cases have surfaced in the neighboring district of Lohit.

In Meghalaya, dozens of tailors are working hard at stitching facemasks to support the states government's SOS call to augment the supply of masks.

On 3rd April the chief secretary, M S Rao issued an advisory asking all citizens to wear facemasks in public. But affordable facemasks are again a scarce item in the market. But he had a solution which involved roping in tailors in the state to volunteer to stitch masks under the coordination of the Department of Commerce and Industries. The department has supplied the cloth to hundreds of tailors, professional, amateurs and self help groups who have eagerly offered their services. As a community the Shillong Young Mizo Association (YMA) has rallied 70 volunteers who are engaged in mask stitching round the clock. The State hopes this effort will help produce 3 lakhs double-layered reusable cotton masks locally.

Volunteers in Shillong Meghalaya stitching masks in their own homes

One of the first districts to deliver on this promise was the South Garo Hills District, whose amazing tailors managed to sew more than 5700 face masks at such short notice. These were handed over to the Deputy Commissioner on April 8 for distribution to his staff and others in the district. Work is going on in full swing in the other districts. Meanwhile, the state hopes to receive at least 10 lakh masks from the normal manufacturers outside the state within 10 days to ensure that everyone has one. But no one is banking on that as the pandemic has made predictions and future plans based on supplies from outside untenable and unsure.

Meanwhile in a corner of the capital, Shillong, a group called Hilltribe, adventurers are working hard at making face shields for doctors and nurses who are posted in COVID-19 help centres.

In ordinary times they are a travel consultancy but due to the threat of spread of coronovirus they were drawn into making the visors to help deal with the shortage. The leader of the team Daniel Momin, 35 years, said that they were a group of 8 persons who were into DIY as a hobby. He had been asked see if he could make a faceshield by a doctor friend earlier this month.His product was found useful and since then they have been receiving orders from doctors and nurses working in major hospitals of the city. So far they have made 300 visors on order and are trying to fulfill the remaining ones. The visors are made manually with poly carbonated sheets which are flexible and transparent.

Daniel Momin, leader of Hilltribe Adventurer team

Lately, they've been called on by the Civil Hospital, the State's major medical centre in Shillong, to make protective incubation boxes for testing COVID-19 patients. These are useful in protecting doctors and nurses from getting infected while nursing the patient.

If some are making visors and masks, there are others in Shillong like the popular fashion designer C.Lalhmingmawii, about 30 years, who has been roped in by circumstances to stitch protective gowns as PPE for doctors, including some working in the premier institution of North East Indira Gandhi Regional Institute of Health and Medical Sciences (NEIGRIHMS) in the city.

Even premier Government hospitals have been hard hit by shortage of PPE. But now though the PPE supplies have been restored, there are many doctors who still want the gowns tailored by her unit. Stitching PPE and making gowns for doctors is far removed from her usual work, that is designing hi-fi wear for beauty queens and models. So how did she get into dressing up doctors to ensure their safety instead?

"It was just a by the way sort of a thing. A friend of a friend needed safety wear for hospital work and was given my contact as a person who might be able to do it. So when the doctor came with this request, I felt obliged to do it for him. When other doctors and nurses saw that, they came with the same request. I could not say no, especially when one of the doctors remarked that 'his life is in my hands'. It really brought the whole thing into a different level where my talent can be used to contribute to the work of saving lives. That touched the core of my heart, so here I am ready to stitch these PPE gowns for those who need it," Lalhmingmawii told The Logical Indian.

The doctors bring their own material which she sews up. She said she has no set fee but accepts whatever they offer.

In the COVID-19 lockdown city of Aizawl, the biggest name in fashion war, J T Fashion House with its network of tailors across the state are also racing to keep the frontline workers in the prevention of pandemic dressed in safe PPE.

The fashion house's work has become a media toast across the country as reams have been written on their contribution. But they are not the only ones as hundreds of others with a talent for sewing across the state have taken to making masks, alone or as a group and offering them to anyone who needed it. Though the Mizoram Government has stocked up on protective gear which was brought to the state by a special chartered flight, they are cautious as the state is remote and could suffer if the stock depleted.

Also Read: As Lockdown Leaves Animals Starving On Streets, This NGO Is Feeding The Strays

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Linda Chhakchhuak

Linda Chhakchhuak

Independent Journalist

Linda Chhakchhuak

Linda Chhakchhuak

Independent Journalist

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