The economics of masks

Masks are here to stay, but how can they be made more accessible to all?

Nani pulls the elastic band tucked behind her ear and tugs off the mask from her face. It is pink. The mask. It is modelled after a surgical mask—the same flexile lining on one end with a bunch of pleats gathering at the centre, allowing the material to unfold over the face.

But it isn’t a surgical mask. It is a copy. Nani squats by the public tap, reaches for the small piece of abandoned soap. The soap has degenerated from constantly lying by the tap and from being repeatedly grabbed by several pairs of hands. Now, Nani holds it too.

The soap suds as she rubs it on her mask. The froth leaves a creamy feel on Nani’s palms, otherwise dry from all the washing and cleaning she does, day in and day out. Nani rinses the mask in running water, wrings it and then hangs it next to her kurta on the clothesline.

This a daily ritual after she returns home from work. She washes the mask, first thing and leaves it to dry—it has to see her through another day.

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Rita Didi, whose house Nani visits every day to clean and wash, had told her: “Nani, here is the money for you to buy masks. Buy a box of surgical masks from the pharmacist’s. Wear a new one every day when you come to work.”

“Surgical,” Rita Didi had repeated and had placed a five hundred rupee note in her palm. And as Nani closed her fist to hold the money in, in her mind she immediately saw note books and pencils and a new water bottle that little Reshma had been asking for. So, on her way back home, Nani stopped at the local store.

She spent two hundred rupees on a water bottle that had the image of a mouse with massive black ears, looking happy in a red frock with white dots. She spent another two hundred on a note book, pencils and a bunch of coloured chart papers.

That was when she had spotted the pink mask, staring at her from a bunch of green, grey, blue masks stacked against a pail of daal. So, fifteen rupees was spent on a pink mask and the change, she thrust into her bag.

Nani had finally acquired a mask! She unfurled the pleats of the mask like she were opening an umbrella before an impending storm and pressed it against her face, sliding the elastic bands behind her ears. She had felt safe.

A week since, the little pink thing hung on the clothesline, frayed from daily washing. Thin sprays of material like the remnants of a broken spider’s web formed a bush over the front of the mask—the part that chaffed her nose.

Tomorrow, Rita Didi would once again ask her why she wasn’t wearing a surgical mask. Again, Nani would tell her that she had not spotted an open pharmacy yet. And Rita Didi would go into a rant about safety, all of it shouted through her white mask that looked like the snout of some animal.

Rita Didi would say, “I’m only asking you to come to work because I know you need a salary. I’m trying to help you through this difficult time.” And Nani would nod and begin to do the math in her head, breaking her salary of seven thousand rupees into house rent, a bag of rice, Reshma’s school fees, a new pair of chappals, medicines for Ama, and an umbrella and, and…

S walks up to an elderly man who’s pushing a bicycle, loaded down with big baskets carrying fruits.

“Dai,” she interrupts him, as he turns around and smiles at her. “Tapai le mask kina nalagauna bhako?” Why aren’t you wearing a mask?

The man laughs and pulls out a blue, crushed surgical mask from his front pocket and spreads it over his face. He explains that he had been sucking on some tobacco a while ago and had removed the mask so he could spit and that he had forgotten to wear it back on.

S requests him to keep it on at all times and he laughs and say Huss, Huss.

“See?” S turns to me. “We keep berating people for not wearing masks, but we aren’t thinking of why they aren’t wearing them.” And as though to prove her point, a man walks past us, briefly stopping to spit a streak of paan into the gutter. His mask is dangling by his ear.

“We need to think of individual needs, cultures and all kinds of things when talking about masks. It’s no use blaming people without trying to understand why. We need to set up mask banks across the country, so that people have access to masks!” S says excitedly.

Past the narrow alleyway, we enter a store that sells branded clothing. There are sets of colourful cloth masks arranged in rows on the shelf. The masks have double layers—made from soft cotton that comes with the promise of not leaving marks on the ridge of your nose. They come with the promise of sitting snugly against your face. They come with the promise of colours that match your outfit.

“I switched to cloth masks because I don’t want to be throwing surgical masks out everyday and add to the waste,” explains A. “Do they work?” we ask the guy at the counter. “Yes, yes,” he averts our eyes, quickly shoves the masks into tony pouches and pushes them at us across the counter.

Suburban Tales is a monthly column in Nepali Times based on real people (with some names changed) in the author’s life.


Pratibha Tuladhar


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