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As government orders public mask use, North Koreans hastily make homemade versions

Residents wear surgical masks while crossing the road in order to prevent the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus on Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020 in Hong Kong. (Geovien So/SOPA Images/Zuma Press/TNS)
April 05, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

North Korea has ordered residents to wear face masks in public to combat the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, but a scarcity of masks is forcing some to make their own merely to comply with the orders, posing the risk that hastily made masks will not stop the pathogen, a health expert told RFA.

Pyongyang has yet to report a single confirmed case of the virus within the country, but the government has been taking extensive preventative measures, leading experts to believe that the virus is already there.

The U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) do not currently recommend that healthy people wear masks or respirators in public to protect themselves from COVID-19. But masks have been a widespread response in Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea, where it is common for those stricken with colds or the flu to wear the facial barriers to protect others.

With supply shortages in North Korea, residents are making their own masks from home, which can be effective if made of the proper materials.

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But most are being hastily made so that people can nominally comply with government orders, enabling them to go outside without being harassed by authorities.

A resident of Ryanggang province told RFA’s Korean Service that the mask order has been in place since mid-March.

“In the middle this month, the party committee here in Ryanggang province asked each factory, company and neighborhood watch unit to give the instruction to wear masks in our daily lives,” said the source.

“They stressed that the preventative measures against the coronavirus must be carried out. The rules even say children must stay more than five meters from doorways unless they are wearing masks, so people were scrambling to look for masks,” the source added.

But with the sudden order creating a demand greater than supply, many North Koreans were unable to procure masks, and were forced to adopt creative solutions to satisfy the government order.

“Most residents, because they were unable to find a proper mask, are simply making their own masks at home,” the source said.

“They cut out pieces of cloth, making something that looks like a mask, to deceive people into thinking they are wearing proper masks,” the source added.

A healthcare provider who fled North Korea and currently resides in the South told RFA Monday that homemade masks, when made improperly, offer very little in the way of preventing the spread of viruses.

“When made out of cloth, the fabric itself has not been sterilized,” the former refugee said.

“I think [these masks] are only perfunctory because [the people] have no choice but to make their own just to follow the state’s coercion. They are hardly effective.”

The first source said that the homemade cloth masks are widely used as people try to comply with the government’s orders.

“They sell [proper] masks in the local markets but the price of a single Chinese mask is equivalent to that of a few kilograms of rice. Who can afford to buy that?” said the first source.

Another source, a resident of North Hamgyong province told RFA Monday that similar rules were in effect there as well.

“More and more people are using cloth to make masks because the quarantine center is strongly mandating that they wear masks [in public],” said the North Hamgyong resident.

“The people complain that they can’t afford to buy masks, saying that if they had enough money to buy them, they would spend their money on more food instead,” the North Hamgyong resident added.

Stories in the region are spreading that restrictions imposed because of the coronavirus will be lifted in 20 days, according to the North Hamgyong resident.

“People believe that if they can endure for the next 20 days, they won’t be harassed if they go outside without a mask anymore, so they are just trying to get by with their homemade cloth masks.”

A second former North Korean refugee in South Korea who worked in the healthcare industry said that homemade masks lack antiviral filters that can be found in medical grade masks.

“What the people there are making is not completely ineffective, but there’s a huge difference between masks with these filters and those without,” he said.

“Airborne droplets [expelled by a cough or sneeze] may have virus particles in them, so the government must produce and provide masks,” he added.

“They shouldn’t be working on nuclear weapons. They should be providing masks.”

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams on Wednesday said he asked the CDC to review its stance on public masks, saying that new evidence suggests they might be effective in stopping asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus from spreading it. He reiterated that the N95 grade masks should be reserved for medical professionals, though.

Medical experts in the U.S. have advised that the making of masks at home might be helpful if they have multiple layers. The New York Times Tuesday published step-by-step instructions on how to make a proper mask for personal use.