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Businessman calls for a different take on face masks

Image: 123RF / maridav

Government should allow ordinary citizens to wear reusable masks and provide surgical masks exclusively for medical personnel in the fight against Covid-19.

This is the call made by Gauteng businessman Nkosinathi Lowan. He is the owner and CEO of Health Zone Pharmacy and Clinic, a company which runs private primary health clinics - two in Pretoria and one in Tembisa .

Lowan’s business has also been involved in the production of reusable face masks through a partnership with a company called Flamicol, which makes uniforms and other protective clothing.

Lowan came up with the design of the reusable face mask and asked Flamicol to produce it for him. The mask is made up of polycotton. It can be washed in water with soap, ironed and reused. The ironing, Lowan said, allows for any bacteria that is left on the mask to be destroyed.

“Surgical masks are meant to be used by medical staff - the nurses, doctors and other medical staff. The rest of the population should be allowed to wear the reusable, washable, polycotton mask,” Lowan said.

He told Sowetan that most of the surgical masks in the market were from China.

“That is a problem... [that] our country cannot produce [enough] masks; we have to bring them in from elsewhere. To me this poses a big risk." Flamicol plants in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Nelspruit, with a capacity to produce 5,000 polycotton reusable masks, have had to shut down, as per lockdown regulations.

“The demand is greater than supply. This means we need to procure a lot of material. For us to do that we would need a good financial muscle to secure all the material we need."

Lowan said even though they had challenges even before loockdown, with limited market to operate in, they could get by with the little they supplied their main clients - the pharmacies.

“With this lockdown, people are not buying as they used to. Government should be the major client. The government should buy and distribute [the masks] to the people.”

Lowan's reusable masks are selling for R25 each.

“The rationale behind the use of a polycotton mask is three-fold. One is the environmental impact. When you use a surgical mask, you need a dedicated bin to dispose it into. The surgical mask is not supposed to go to a normal refuse bag. There are companies which have the expertise to collect medical waste. The gloves and the surgical masks do not go to the same bin.

“The risk that we are facing is that these surgical masks will end up be in our rivers and streams if are not properly disposed of. We are saying these surgical masks must be used primarily by medical personnel, end of story. If an ordinary person wants to go out of the house, they should be allowed to put on a reusable mask.”

Lowan added that the cost factor needed to be considered as poor households would not be able to buy surgical masks, which must be changed daily.

The government has since stated that the preference for surgical masks is informed by the World Health Organisation's guidelines.

On Friday health minister Zweli Mkhize called for the use of face masks by the public. He said the masks could be homemade, using a piece of a cloth or a handkerchief.

“Wearing masks is important,” Mkhize said. “We want to recommend widespread use of masks. We are recommending that people can use cloth masks, just make sure there’s a three-layer kind of thing.”

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