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Face Masks: Tilting Toward Community Resilience

Steven Eberlein | APR 10, 2020

Choosing the Right Mask, Right Now, for the Right Reasons

By Lydia Ledgerwood-Eberlein and Steve Eberlein of Tipping Point Resilience

Steven Eberlein and his wife, Lydia lived in Sri Lanka when a the Boxing Day Tsunami devastated the island, taking 230,000 lives. Steve and Lydia returned to the Pacific Northwest, which is grappling with the scientific certainty of its own future seismic event, and work to encourage practical preparedness. See more info after article.


A Case Study in Ambiguity

As of Friday, April 3rd, the CDC began recommending that all people who leave their homes for essential activities like grocery shopping and pharmacy visits wear fabric masks. This new recommendation came shortly after we were told to give up all medical-grade masks, that we didn’t need them, and that we were irresponsible and selfish for buying them. The seeming contradiction leaves us to ask what’s safe, what’s responsible, and are we able to be…both?

Our experience in the eye of a disaster response taught us that information must be direct, clear, and without subtlety. So here goes. 

Our health workers need N-95 masks more than you do.

The N-95 is a specialized mask that, when fitted properly, filters 95% of particulates. The healthcare professionals who wade through wards of coughing, contagious COVID-19 sufferers in 12-hour shifts need an N-95’s protection from the airborne droplets that transport the virus. For our health care workers in the war zone, N-95 masks are virus armor, and we now know we simply don’t have enough of them. It’s estimated that 3.5 billion N-95s will be needed in the US this year to tackle COVID-19 and everyone - states, countries, and profiteers - are bidding on a limited supply.

Simply put, you don’t need N-95s as much as our health care workers do. If you have extras, you should consider donating them to your local health authority.

Your community needs you to wash your hands, keep your distance, and wear a fabric mask.

On February 9th and 16th, a woman contagious with COVID-19 attended church services in South Korea, infecting at least 43 parishioners who in turn infected 5,000 others – half of the country’s COVID caseload. The precise mode of transmission is unknown, but we know that the coronavirus can live for hours or days on various surfaces. It’s easy to imagine “Patient 31” touching her face (as we all do frequently), placing her hand on the side of the pew as she took her seat, another dozen other hands passing over that same pew as people exited the service, hands shaking in greeting, cookies eaten in fellowship. This is a recipe for an outbreak. This mode of transmission explains the wisdom of handwashing and social distancing.

But why the fabric mask, and why now?

Only recently did we learn that up to 25% of COVID carriers suffer few or no symptoms. That means any one of us could unwittingly become, like Patient 31, a “super spreader.” To be a responsible citizen in the COVID-19 era, we have to behave as though we’re infected, regardless of how good we may feel. Fabric masks are meant to protect your community from you. When we trek to the grocery store to stay fed or take walks to stay sane, the fabric mask blocks the droplets that travel with our coughs and sneezes so that we may avoid infecting the surfaces that share thousands of our community’s touches – like handrails and grocery checkout conveyors.

Fabrics Masks 101

The CDC’s recommendation has created a sudden backlog on masks, so people are figuring out how to do it on their own. Even the least crafty among us can make a mask with things we already have around the house. The internet abounds with instructions on how to fold handkerchiefs and utilize hair ties, the CDC is circulating instructions on how to cut an old t-shirt into a mask, and there are already countless patterns available for free for the more talented and well-stocked among us.

As for pre-made masks, before searching online, try sourcing them in your own community. Through a gift economy group called “Buy Nothing,” we met Elizabeth Wilson McCalmont, a talented and enthusiastic sewist who’s been cranking out masks, fiddling with patterns, finding the best materials for children and adults with sensory processing issues, and steering us away from bad decisions (e.g. do not use vacuum filters in your masks – especially HEPA - as they contain fiberglass). She’s distributing masks to friends, using them to barter for other things she needs, and providing invaluable information to her neighbors. Ironically, physical distancing and supply shortages give us an opportunity to know our neighbors’ strengths and needs, which will serve us well when the next disaster strikes.

Mask Crusaders

People are more likely to change their behavior if they see other people doing it too. Your willingness to model change creates a permission structure that allows people to follow your lead. Every morning, we walk -minding our distance - as a family. We do it for routine, for our sanity, and to set an example for our community. On one of our daily walks, we encountered Gail Williams, a community member and mask-crusader tabling before our local Masonic Lodge. Her sign read: “Free! Materials to make face masks. We’re in this together!” She distributed forty mask-making kits in two and a half hours on a day when hardly anyone on the street that day was wearing masks. Gail’s endeavor was admirable, not only for her generosity, but for her willingness to risk being publicly on the vanguard of a cultural shift. In this case, the fabric masks not only helped to protect the community, they served to mobilize it.

Preparedness Culture Shift

Through the course of our emergency preparedness work, we run into the term “prepper” a lot. It’s often used as a pejorative: “Preppers'' build underground bunkers, stockpile resources (toilet paper, anyone?), and get ready to hunker down for the apocalypse. “Preppers” are planning to be the last ones standing – to hell with everyone else. This mindset is a natural extension of a stridently individualistic culture, where we expect unfettered dominion over our choices as we compete with one another for survival. In the COVID era, we’ve become cells within a single infected organism. We are asked daily to take actions that may be against our wishes to restore the health of the organism to which we belong. Against the backdrop of COVID-19, we have an opportunity to understand the concepts of community resilience and mutual aid, which ask us to prepare for disasters together so that we can thrive together inside of our communities. We can achieve this in our neighborhoods by knowing - ahead of time - who has which tools and skills, who is vulnerable and in need of greater assistance, who is a master gardener, and who can sew enough damn fabric masks to cover our needs. Resilient communities are better able to absorb the impact of emergencies because we are each other’s safety nets.

The act of wearing a fabric mask exemplifies the ethos of community resilience and mutual aid: my actions protect my neighbors, theirs protect me. It’s a beautiful and hopeful concept in these uncertain times.

Steven Eberlein and his wife, Lydia lived in Sri Lanka when a 9.1M earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia, creating the Boxing Day Tsunami, which took 230,000 lives.

After serving in the relief effort, Steve and Lydia returned to the Pacific Northwest, which is grappling with the scientific certainty of its own future earthquake/tsunami event. He is now a professional speaker who specializes in crowd persuasion and the social dynamics that drive and deter earthquake preparedness through his company, Tipping Point Resilience.

See Steve's TEDx Talk by Clicking Here.