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From masks to meal boxes, businesses step in to help medics battling coronavirus

by Beh Lih Yi, Ban Barkawi and Sophie Davies | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Monday, 30 March 2020 11:27 GMT

Workers at Malaysian social enterprise, Biji-biji Initiative, making face shields for frontline medical workers dealing with the coronavirus cases in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo courtesy: Biji-biji Initiative

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Social enterprises turn to making face shields and protective suites to aid doctors and nurses fighting COVID-19

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By Beh Lih Yi, Ban Barkawi and Sophie Davies

KUALA LUMPUR/AMMAN/BARCELONA, March 30 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A s the coronavirus epidemic stretches health services around the world to the limit, businesses for good are stepping in, providing everything from protective masks to meal boxes for frontline staff.

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The World Health Organization has warned that medical workers are "dangerously ill-equipped" to fight the deadly virus, a message underscored by images on social media of desperate staff with only garbage bags for protection.

In response to the crisis, businesses with a social conscience have been scrambling to help, from the Spanish shoemakers producing facemasks to the Malaysian social enterprise hiring refugees to make meals for hospital staff.

"It's the least we can do," said Lucia Cáscales, a nursing assistant who is making masks in Alicante in the south of Spain, one of the countries worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic. "You have to help people at this very serious time."

The Spanish initiative was started by a group of women volunteers who normally stitch shoes in their own homes. They have now sent more than 5,000 face masks they made to local hospitals to help plug acute shortages.

Workers at Malaysian social enterprise, Biji-biji Initiative, making face shields for frontline medical workers dealing with the coronavirus cases in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Photo courtesy: Biji-biji Initiative


With protective equipment in high demand, social enterprises - businesses that aim to do good as well as turning a profit - have turned their hand to manufacturing around the world.

In Malaysia and the Philippines, there have been reports of medical workers resorting to using garbage bags due to a shortage of personal protective equipment.

Biji-biji Initiative, a Malaysian social enterprise that turns discarded banners into folders and seat belts into bags, is sending local hospitals thousands of face shields it made with elastic bands, as well as acrylic and plastic sheets.

"(Some doctors) were pleading with us that they need these face shields," said co-founder Juliana Adam of the equipment that doctors usually wear with surgical masks.

"They are the frontliners, halting the pandemic. They are putting their lives at risk just by being at work," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Elsewhere Mashghal al-Omm, a Lebanese social enterprise that employs widows and women with no income to sew garments for retailers, has asked its workers to switch to making protective suits and masks for local hospitals.

A financial crisis exacerbated by months of political instability has brought much of Lebanon's economy to a halt, making it difficult to import these crucial supplies.

"Lebanon's problem is that we rely on imports," said Mashghal al-Omm's media manager Ghassan Hankir, from its garment workshop in the southern city of Sidon.

"Before this, no one produced protective gear here, it was all from China," he said, adding suits made locally are five times cheaper than those sourced from abroad.


Prices of medical goods have surged since the start of the coronavirus outbreak late last year. The cost of a surgical mask has risen six-fold, according to the WHO, prompting calls to the industry and governments to ramp up manufacturing.

Other companies have also stepped in, from luxury goods maker Louis Vuitton, which is switching from perfume to disinfectant gel production, to the British bagless vacuum cleaner company Dyson, which is to manufacture ventilators.

However, some experts have cautioned against relying too much on companies with no experience of producing such highly specialist medical equipment.

"On the one hand, I have seen how some businesses have shifted from making alcoholic beverages to making alcohol-based hand sanitizers.

"This is feasible and meets a pressing need," said Keiji Fukuda, director of the University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health.

"By contrast, it is harder to see how a company that normally makes cars can be converted into making ventilators in time to be useful for this pandemic," added Fukuda, a former WHO adviser on pandemic influenza.

"Such machines are complex, will depend on specialized machinery, skilled workers and supplies from a variety of countries."

Frontline medical staff are under huge pressure, exacerbated by the strain of living in countries under lockdown.

In Britain, one exhausted nurse was driven to tears after finding store shelves bare after her shift, prompting a government warning for people not to hoard food.

The Picha Project, a Malaysian social enterprise that hires refugees to cook, aims to make sure these workers are looked after.

Every day it sends about 400 meal boxes typically containing chicken and rice to hospitals, paid for by companies or individuals who want to thank the frontline workers.

"Everyone needs food," said Picha Project's co-founder Suzanne Ling. "This is the least we can do to show we stand with them."

(Writing by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi; Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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