India coronavirus: The woman who pushed for homemade masks

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home made maskImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Homemade masks are cheap and easy to make

A woman scientist from India is behind the push for mass use of homemade masks for more than a billion people, reports science writer Pallava Bagla.

On 11 April, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wore a white homemade cloth mask during a video conference call with political leaders around the country.

Five days earlier, his government had recommended that Indians use homemade face masks in densely populated cities to protect themselves from coronavirus if they had to leave their homes. This was a change from the earlier position that only people who were infected should wear masks.

Behind India's policy change and a push for mass use of homemade masks for more than a billion people is a little-known female biochemist.

Shailaja V Gupta, 58, is a scientist in the office of India's principal scientific adviser. She helps draw up policy and advises the government on the best use of technology.

Debate over masks

"Homemade masks were a very obvious solution to limit the chain of transmission, especially in crowded conditions," she says.

"People living in slums, for example, need a local, cheap and simple solution and that is where the homemade mask can make a difference."

There continues to be debate around the efficacy of masks - both homemade and otherwise. The position of the World Health Organization (WHO) is that there isn't much evidence to support the wearing of masks as a protective measure. However, many Asian countries, including Hong Kong and China, have made masks compulsory. The argument is that with so many of those infected not showing symptoms, masks are necessary to prevent the unwitting spread of the virus.

Image source, PALLAVA BAGLA
Image caption,
Shailaja Gupta has worked in Dharavi, one of Asia's biggest slums

There have also been calls in a number of affected countries, like the US and UK, to make wearing masks mandatory. The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) actually recommends people wearing homemade masks in "public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission."

And in India, with PPE kits in short supply and the regular purchase of surgical masks not being a viable option for many, Ms Gupta believes that homemade masks are a practical preventive measure. An alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, the country's top engineering school, Ms Gupta has worked with some of the country's most underprivileged. She worked as an outreach officer in Dharavi, a sprawling slum in the western city of Mumbai. There, she taught underprivileged children about microbes using a cheap microscope.

Media caption,
Should I wear a mask to stop coronavirus?

When the pandemic broke out in India, Ms Gupta helped prepare a manual on how to make masks at home, got it translated into 22 official Indian languages and relentlessly pushed for making homemade masks an integral part of the strategy to counter the virus. To bolster her case, she cited papers on the efficacy of face masks in international journals. Homemade masks are regularly used in countries such as the Czech Republic, which has made it illegal to leave your home without wearing a mask, and in South Korea.

A cheap solution

Ms Gupta says a homemade mask can be made from any cotton cloth, whether new or used, in any colour. A piece of cloth measuring nine inches by seven inches is cut and four thin strips are attached to it so that it can be tied around the face. The mask will have to cover the mouth and nose properly and it has to be cleaned regularly with soap and water.

Making a re-usable homemade mask costs only a few rupees (a rupee is less than three cents). In contrast, disposable surgical masks, made of non-woven plastic fabric, cost 10 rupees apiece, while the N95 masks used by doctors and nursing staff each cost about 500 rupees - more than what a typical daily-wager makes in a day.

The Indian government says some 20 million homemade masks have been already made by some 78,000 self-help groups in 27 states around India.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Prime Minister Modi wore a homemade mask during a video conference with political leaders

The country needs a billion such masks very soon, says Ms Gupta. One newspaper has even begun a campaign called "mask India", asking people to make their own masks.

Officials say Ms Gupta has to take much of the credit for this drive.

"Her clarity about the need for face masks, her leadership in getting her team to complete the task of developing an effective communication manual, and her persistence in taking it through to fruition have all had very important positive consequences," says K Vijay Raghavan, the principal scientific adviser to the government.