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With Little Safety for Themselves, Kashmir's Young Women Are Stitching Masks, PPEs for Health Workers

Women at sewing masks in Anantnag.

Women at sewing masks in Anantnag.

The doctors and paramedics at the forefront of battle against COVID-19 have been emphasising that there is lack of protective gear.

Srinagar: The feet seem unstoppable, hands move faster than the machine and the eyes are glued on the thread. When all of Kashmir is under a lockdown forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, the thrumming of the sewing machine is the only sound that is being heard in Anantnag district. Here, some girls have volunteered to make masks and other protective gears for frontline health workers and common people who are facing a shortage of masks in times of the pandemic.

While the practice of social distancing is on and most stay at home, Sakiba, a resident of Kehribal area of Anantnag district, leaves her home at 9 in the morning. Her face covered with a dupatta, she walks to Kashgar Public Charitable Trust, a kilometer away from her home, where she sews the protective gears.

Settling herself on a chair, the 23-year-old starts the sewing machine to stitch handmade masks and Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for the doctors and paramedics at the forefront of the fight against Covid -19 in Kashmir. The Valley reported 152 cases of the virus infection till Thursday afternoon.

“This is my contribution to society. We all know that there's a shortage of masks and PPEs in Kashmir. So, I am working hard to ensure we don’t face a shortage of masks here and everything goes smoothly,” said Sakiba who along with her colleagues have made over 2,000 masks since March 31.

However, it wasn’t easy for Sakiba to convince her family to allow her to leave home during the pandemic situation.

"They were reluctant to send me out. They feared that I might contract the virus," said Sakiba who has been continuously working for over a week, without a break.

Recent guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said, "Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure."

Like Sakiba, many girls – small-time tailors and some prominent women entrepreneurs – have come forward to help the community with their skills.

"I am happy that I am able to use my skills and serve my people in these tough times when the entire world has been devastated by the virus. We work from 9 in the morning till 5 in the evening," said Saima Hayat, another volunteer from Kashgar Trust. The trust has now received consignments from the local district administration to make Personal Protective Equipments.

“We are giving all the masks and PPEs that we are making for free,” said Syed Bilal, administrator of the Kashgar Trust, adding, “I am amazed to see the dedication of these girls. They leave their homes risking their lives, come here walking and ensure the masks reach the people.”

Lack of Masks and PPEs

As the cases of Covid-19 in Kashmir crossed the 100 mark, doctors and paramedics took to their social media accounts to show resentment against the government for not providing them with protective gears.

The news about the shortage of masks and personal protective gears in hospitals spread. Malik Arif Noor, who runs an NGO called ‘We Volunteers’ assembled a group of girls and asked them to use their skills for the good of the society.

Tabasum and her colleagues immediately agreed and started sewing masks and surgical gowns.

Working for over 12 hours a day, Tabasum along with other girls, have made almost 2,000 masks and 250 gowns since March. Tabasum, who has done her Masters in Sociology, is selling all these handmade masks free of cost.

"When Adil sir asked me to make masks for people, I was more than happy to do it because this is the time when we can do something for the people. The thought of getting infected didn't even occur to us. We just wanted to be of some use to the people, health workers and everyone who is fighting this virus."

From distributing masks to hospitals in Budgam and Pulwama, the NGO has also provided masks to people who were kept in quarantine centres and were short of masks.

Dr Yasir Wani, a paediatrician at District hospital, Budgam, while appreciating the efforts of the girls making masks, said, “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have said that everyone should wear masks now. So taking that into consideration, the fabric-based masks can be good. They can be worn during the day and washed in the evening with a disinfectant. This will help reduce community transmission."

He also said that since the flu season is coming, the handmade masks are the need of the hour.

However, Dr Salim Khan, Head of Department of Community Medicine, who is also the nodal officer for the COVID-19, said, "The mask can help us in not touching our face and nose, but the quality of the mask should be good and the maintenance of the mask is also important."

Considering all the recommendations of the health workers, Mehwish Zargar (name changed) makes masks after consulting the doctors.

"I first sewed a few masks and showed them to a few doctors who I know. Only after their approval, I started making more masks," said Mehwish, who lives in Srinagar and is a seamstress by profession.

"I have been stitching clothes for five years and a few days ago a few neighbours requested me to make masks for them and for their children,” she said.

"In the process, I started getting more request and eventually I decided to make masks in bulk and distribute them among people. Today, I have distributed over 1,000 masks among people," the 25-year-old said.

On March 18, when Kashmir reported its first case of Coronavirus, Aayat Tanveer saw her father and uncle leaving home without wearing a mask. Worried about the safety of her family members, she went on YouTube and saw tutorials about making homemade masks.

“Since there was a shortage of masks in the market, I thought of making a mask at home for my family members. I watched a YouTube video and made a mask,” said Aayat, a class 6 student.

The 10-year-old has made over 100 masks and has distributed them among her neighbours.

“I wanted my neighbours to be safe as well. Now I am making masks for my relatives,” she said.