How a hard-to-find piece of cloth came to symbolize shortage of medical supplies as the pandemic hit the Czech Republic. From Respekt.

Suddenly, everyone – regular citizens, shop clerks, health-care workers – needed a face mask. This basic health-care aid, while not completely protecting anyone from contamination, does help stop infected people from spreading illness. No one had any, and none could be found in stores. Doctors who did manage to locate some watched their supplies quickly dwindle.

In the end, home sewing helped ward off the worst scarcity. It even helped health-care workers to some extent. From the angle of the everyday people who took the manufacturing and distribution into their own hands, this showed what Czechs could accomplish – quickly and adaptably – including the development of apps that show users the closest source of masks on a map. From the angle of the government, which couldn’t get its hands on any masks for a week in mid-March, it seemed to show what the authorities, in fact, could not seem to accomplish.

I Just Keep Sewing

The woman who spurred the Czech nation to sit at sewing machines and start mass-producing cotton masks, it seems, is Michaela Moudra, from Hodejice in southern Moravia. When she read a Facebook post about how the maternity hospital in Prague’s Podoli quarter was desperately looking for 2,000 cotton face masks, which they were short of because of the coronavirus outbreak, she decided to answer the cry for help. The seamstress has been sewing traditional Moravian folk costumes for 20 years, so she knows her way around a sewing machine, and had a good supply of cotton fabric.

Going from puffy blouses to austere, rectangular masks was no problem for this experienced sewer. She fashioned the first piece from instructions pulled off the internet, photographed her creation, and posted it on her Facebook profile with a call to action. The intensity of the reaction and people’s interest level took her by surprise. “Everyone wrote that they also wanted to sew,” Moudra said. With the help of two daughters, she created the Facebook group Cesko sije rousky (Czechia Sews Face Masks) where volunteers offer masks, or those in need look for suppliers.

After a week the page had 30,000 members, and a new offer popped up every few minutes. Moudra and her daughters sewed from morning to night and in the first four days made and mailed about 1,000 face masks. At first, they used their own supplies, but now receive fabric from donors from far and wide. Their creations come in various patterns: Some are striped, others plain white, others have pictures of dogs on them. Moravian seamstresses are sending face masks not only to individuals but to institutions that don’t have enough – to Brno’s General Hospital, the Pardubice hospital, and senior homes. They answered requests from nurses who work at the hospitals. The masks are free for hospitals; for private individuals the price is 30 crowns ($1.25). All profit is to go to Klokanek (Little Kangaroo), a children’s charity. “I’m doing nothing but sew right now,” Moudra said. “My daughters are taking care of the orders. We’ll keep doing it as long as people need it.”

Moudra’s family workshop and Facebook group were at the forefront of this revival of Czech tailoring, but now they are among thousands of home workshops, big and small, all over the country. Czechia Sews Face Masks spurred the birth of numerous similar groups, both on and off the internet. Tailors in the Zlin theater are sewing masks for hospitals, as are Czech public TV prop makers; the military; and even former First Lady Dagmar Havlova and popular singer Lucie Bila.

From China to Czechia

For medical professionals, home-sewn face masks are not just making a virtue of necessity but are a fully functioning tool. Jaroslav Bartonek, a paramedic from Ricany, took 20 for his ambulance.

“We have them for basic use, like when we go to the store for something to eat or at the gas station,” he said. “So we don’t waste any.” He made those comments in mid-March, when fear over the lack of official supplies was spreading and entire households began to sew as a result. A day later government ministers began apologizing for empty warehouses and the government allowed fabric shops to open so people had something to sew with.

Bartonek got his face masks from an acquaintance in Prague, who’d just started home sewing with friends as part of Czechia Sews Face Masks. “They work the same way as the hospital ones,” he noted. Even medical personnel received the recommendation that it’s a good idea to sew something at home, just in case. A nurse’s letter to Central Bohemian Region Governor Jaroslava Pokorna Jermanova caused a big stir when it appeared on Facebook. Coming off three night shifts, emergency nurse Veronika Brozova complained about the region’s failure and said protective equipment was in ambulances only thanks to gifts from the public and old reserves purchased by medical personnel with their own money.

The nurse’s letter underlines the Czech government’s failure to obtain medical supplies – not only masks, but also respirators and other protective items. At the end of January, Health Minister Adam Vojtech assured parliamentarians that “one Czech manufacturer has a million face masks in storage, and an order of 25,000 is being prepared; so we definitely will have face masks.” In the light of today’s needs, those are wholly inadequate numbers.

A month later, at the beginning of March, politicians realized they had a problem: the Czech Republic lacks enough supplies and during a time of global scarcity and enormous demand isn’t going to find more any time soon. Despite that, Prime Minister Andrej Babis claimed there were enough face masks. A few days later government politicians began carefully apologizing for the face mask shortage.

On 20 March, the first planeload of medical supplies from China arrived, preceded by Interior Minister Jan Hamacek’s dramatic statement that “the fun is over, and now life is at stake,” and “if not for the president, there wouldn’t be any supplies.” [Czech President Milos Zeman maintains excellent relations with the Chinese leadership – Transitions note.] The Chinese then complicated the delivery of the paid-for goods, presented as aid, because they didn’t allow a Czech plane to enter their airspace. China probably wanted the material to arrive on a Czech runway in a Chinese, not domestic, airplane. Six more batches were to arrive after the deadline for this issue. If all went according to plan, Czechia has at its disposal 15 million face masks and hundreds of thousands of other pieces of more sophisticated material.

Need for Millions of Masks

On 19 March, the government forbade movement in public without covered mouths and noses. By then a major campaign was in full swing on social media, featuring celebrities and lesser-known individuals in appeals to their fellow citizens to wear masks out of consideration for others. Even before the ban, face masks – until then deemed a rather strange accessory – became a stylish, entirely common one, and mask sewing a domestic sport. At the same time, at a news conference the next day, Prime Minister Babis pretended that he didn’t know ordinary people and health-care workers were sewing masks. Health Minister Vojtech announced the same day that he was counting on part of the 15 million masks being available to the general public.

“Our usage amounts to dozens per day,” said Jaroslav Lorman, director of Zivot 90 (Life 90), a Prague senior center. Its social workers need masks for their visits to seniors at home. Zivot 90 is a small organization. Roman Prymula, deputy health minister and at the time head of the coronavirus crisis task force, estimated that the outbreak will continue for weeks. The hard-to-get 15 million face masks thus probably won’t be enough even for those who need them most – medical personnel, social workers, police, or retail workers – much less the general population.

The government never did issue an explicit (and for the populace not especially burdensome) directive that everyone should secure mouth and nose coverings as long as the crisis lasts. Even professionals claim that single-use medical-grade masks are not practical for the general population and are wasteful. Cotton face masks can be washed and used again and again.

By Tomas Brolik, Petr Horky, and Jiri Nadoba. This article originally appeared in the Czech newsweekly Respekt. Reprinted by permission. Translated by Dasa Obereigner. Homepage image by well.mats.cz/Instagram.