South Asia’s poor forced to choose between mask and food

Updated 29 Apr 2020

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A woman and a girl sit on a deserted road as they sell handmade masks in Karachi on April 28, 2020. — Reuters
A woman and a girl sit on a deserted road as they sell handmade masks in Karachi on April 28, 2020. — Reuters

KABUL/COLOMBO: Buy a mask and let his family go hungry, or buy food and go out into the crowded city without one — that is the stark choice facing Hayatullah Khan, an Afghan labourer whose daily earnings have fallen below $1.50 during the coronavirus pandemic.

Like many poor South Asians, Khan has no choice but to leave the house for work. But even without the hit to his earnings from the coronavirus pandemic, he would have struggled to afford the mask authorities tell him he should wear.

“I have earned less than 100 afghani ($1.32) today. What am I going to do?,” Khan said in the Afghan capital Kabul. “Should I buy a mask or food for my family?” Wearing a mask in public is now compulsory in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka and advised by Afghanistan and Bangladesh, and demand and prices have soared.

With basic disposable mask now costing up to $7 in some places, that has created a new form of inequality in cities where hundreds of millions live in cramped, unhygienic conditions.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said coronavirus lockdown measures had disproportionately hurt marginalised communities.

“Certainly the coronavirus itself does not distinguish between prince or pauper, race or religion,” said Ganguly.

“But how it impacts individuals differs vastly depending on their access to food, shelter, health and other basic needs.”

In India, the business tycoon Anand Mahindra had to backtrack after tweeting an image of a woman and small child wearing leaves as makeshift masks with the words, “a reminder that nature provides us with all that we need”.

He deleted the tweet saying it was “insensitive to the inequity of the situation” after others pointed out there was no evidence leaves provided protection from the virus.

In Sri Lanka, authorities have capped prices at 15 rupees (eight cents) for a disposable surgical-style mask and 150 rupees for the closer-fitting ones sometimes called respirators.

Yet locals said it was difficult to find either at those prices, with pharmacies marking up costs.

“Earlier we bought surgical masks for 15 rupees, but now they are not available at that price and some sell the same masks at 75 rupees,” said Hashan, who lives in a slum in the capital Colombo.

“So most of the people in our area are wearing homemade masks now,” he said, declining to give his full name as he was outside during the lockdown.

South Asia has been less hard hit by the virus than many other parts of the world, with confirmed coronavirus deaths in India — a country of 1.3 billion — still below the 1,000 mark.

But Nipuna Kumbalathara, a spokesman for Oxfam in Asia, said cases like Hashan’s highlighted the need for greater public investment.

“Clearly people who are struggling to put meals on their tables can’t pay for their safety kits, testing or care,” he said by email, urging governments to provide protective gear to poor and vulnerable people.

The World Health Organisation says masks only need to be worn by those who are sick and showing symptoms, and those caring for people suspected to have the disease.

Although many governments are mandating the use of masks to curb the spread of the virus as they relax lockdown measures, others have urged the public not to buy them while there are shortages to ensure adequate supplies for healthcare workers.

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2020