It emerged as a mascot of the pandemic in spring last year, practiced by humans across nations and ethnic lines — masks, which at the time, along with maintaining a physical distance, was the only defensive tool against the virus.
Masks had sold out immediately after the breakout of the pandemic last year, their prices had skyrocketed like never before. “Whatever we made, people bought it,” said Umar Bin Ahmad, a 25-year-old businessman, who had started making disposable masks during the first lockdown last year.
As all other economic activity had come to a grinding halt, the mask market started blooming all of a sudden. “We thought of making masks as only it could have helped us run our households [in lockdown],” said Ahmad, “and it did.”
Ahmad has been running an online business of readymade garments, Modest Attires, for the past eight years. When sales declined after the outbreak of the pandemic, he purchased non-woven fabric and elastic from a local trader to make disposable masks.
Not just his twenty workers but he provided employment to sixty women across Srinagar city. Together they had made about 4,50,000 masks. “I sold 20,000 masks every day,” said Ahmad.
Authorities in Srinagar city had made it mandatory for people to wear masks in public places last year, saying that the violators will be fined ₹200. The imposition remained for not more than a week and violations were common.
Months later, Kashmir was hit by the second wave of the virus, in March 2021, leading to yet another rise in the demand for masks. Not just one layer of disposable masks but people started wearing two masks to reduce the transmission of the new deadlier variant which is believed to be more infectious than the virus’ earlier version.
But Ahmad has now stopped making masks because, he said, it is now available everywhere. He believes that from disposable to surgical to N95 to fancy cloth masks, everything is present in the market now. “Who would buy it from us when they have options?” he said.
Multiple international and national brands like Prada, Gucci, Puma and Wildcraft across the globe have started to manufacture and design their own cloth mask. Mask was a matter of life and death considering the healthcare viewpoint but over the months, it became a part of fashion.
While during the second wave of the pandemic, the shortage of oxygen, Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds and anti-viral medicine, prescribed to COVID-19 positive patients have been reported from almost all the districts of Kashmir — masks were found at every nook and corner. The fear returned to Kashmir, this time scarier than before.
Tanvir Bhat, a wholesaler of surgical products in Srinagar’s busy Lal Chowk area, sells 4,000 masks every day unlike pre-pandemic when he would hardly sell 200. “Sales have increased 200 percent,” he said.
Since the pandemic began, Bhat has sold “lakhs of masks”.
He said that there are new innovations in masks including disposable and surgical masks, and now when the demand has increased the quality of masks has declined. “It has become hard for the government to keep a check on quality as everybody is making masks now,” he said.
Surgical masks are made from a plastic-derived material called polypropylene, used in sterile medical settings to prevent germs from spreading by blocking splashes. In experiments, a single surgical mask was proven to block 42 percent of contaminants from a simulated cough.
Earlier, cloth masks had become a sense of style among youth but with the arrival of new variants in India, a new study from the Centers for Disease Control in the United States has suggested wearing a well-fitting surgical mask underneath a cloth mask.
As per the study, this pattern of double masking reduces potential exposure to Covid-containing respiratory droplets and aerosols by up to 96 percent. The efficiency of a surgical mask can vary as the air can leak from the edges of the mask, making it unfit. So the experts around the globe suggested people to wear a cloth mask over it for perfect fitting and sealing the gaps.
But Bhat doesn’t sell cloth masks as his conscience doesn’t allow him. “Cloth masks give no protection,” he said. “My heart doesn’t approve.” For him, it is better to wear N95 of 3M, the American multinational conglomerate corporation. “Nothing really gives you complete protection but N95 is better than others,” said Bhat.
To put this into perspective, N95 air filters, which are used by healthcare professionals and other frontline workers, are designed to fit very tightly to the face and shape a seal that absorbs 95 percent of airborne particles.
Bhat said that there is a population in Kashmir that can’t afford an N95 mask of 250-300 rupees, so they prefer disposable masks. “People have to manage,” he said. “Otherwise, it won’t save them.”