The million mask challenge

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As the global COVID-19 pandemic continues, governments are urging their citizens to wear face masks to slow contagion from the virus. In South Africa, the lack of masks is particularly acute in poorer regions. South African businessman and former anti-apartheid activist Anwah Nagia has pledged to make one million cloth face masks. I spoke to Nagia to learn more about the initiative.

The project began through the Mustadafin Foundation, which delivers over 4.7 million meals to low-income communities each year. Nagia is a founder of the organization. As the COVID-19 crisis hit South Africa, the group continued handing out relief parcels. Through their charity work they realized that many of those standing in the queues, especially older people, were crowded without social distancing or face masks.

Nagia thought to address part of the problem by providing people with free face masks. He explained when the pandemic began, “many people received social grants between R600 to R1000 [$30 to $50] while the average face mask costs R45 [$2.50] in the store. This means that some people would be using 10 percent of their social grant relief on purchasing a face mask.”

Besides this, masks are difficult to find at this time especially for those in dense areas. The next step was finding the materials for the face masks. Nagia realized he was standing over a pool of resources that he could use for the masks. He is a founder of the Palestine Museum in Cape Town. The museum was preparing for an official launch later this month and had thousands of yards of cloth that were intended to be used for T-shirts and promotional items.

Nagia produced the first batch of masks from textile intended for the tees, “the cloth was not being used so we figured let’s give it to people in need, as Palestinians have always given to humanity.” The background to this is Palestinians historically provided the South African anti-apartheid movement and other African liberation struggles with financial resources and training.

From there, production began at a local factory converted into a mask production site, hiring hundreds of women. “All the factory workers are mothers and daughters. This gives opportunities for poor people to work as they would not have had a salary for the last month without this job,” Nagia said.

“A good heart is not sufficient,” Nagia told me, “when you are doing anything for the poor you have to do the best. You can’t give the poor something that is inferior quality, you have to give it with the best character, production, benchmarking; it should be the best product possible.”

The initiative is backed by the local community chest, AWQAF SA, the Retro Active Community Fund, Community Chest, Black Creative Ideas, the Muslim Judicial Council, and the Caring Women Forum amongst many others. To date, the project has produced 200,000 masks and they currently have a network capable of distributing half a million masks when ready.

The distribution will work through nominations from local community groups and NGOs with ties with social partners in affected communities including churches, mosques, and synagogues.

Nagia aims to have 1 million produced within a month. He plans to donate a further 10,000 masks to Palestinians. “My genesis is [being] a Muslim but I’m doing this as a human being- I help all of humanity, all of the mustadafin – the poor, oppressed regardless of their shape or size.”