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How Has The Masked Consumer Evolved During The Pandemic?

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This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

Before vaccines and their booster doses were developed, masking and social distancing were the only rules public health officials had hoped the public would swear by. Do you remember the first mask you bought? Chances are it wasn’t a surgical mask or an N95; it was probably a cloth mask.

With the advent of the pandemic, mask styles have evolved as well. The initial dearth of medical masks led to a lot of panic. The general public who could only go out of their house to buy essentials weaponised the cotton fabric to protect themselves from a killer that wasn’t visible to any of all.

Now, masks have become commonplace and an undeniable source of income for many. They are sold on the streets as well as at e-commerce stores. Surgical masks are also available for the public to buy. People are now more aware of their choices despite the rampant misinformation around the usage of masks.

Credit: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

While in some countries, cloth masks are being banned, deeming them particularly ineffective against emerging strains of the virus, this opinion is not the same everywhere. In a country such as India, many people will not be able to afford single-use masks for themselves. They will likely depend on fabric masks to protect themselves. And this consumer trend is probably not going to change any sooner.

I roamed in the markets of Durgapur to find out what mask sellers had to say about their sales. It’s a rare sight to find women selling masks. I met one woman, Shiuli, who was selling masks out of a store that primarily sells clothes. When I approached her, she quickly drew a mask over her face and asked me to sit.

“I have been selling masks since 2020, and I keep both medical as well as cloth masks. Whenever customers buy masks, I tell them about the usage and storage instructions for each type,” she says.

Tarun, who also sells masks out of his retail store, wasn’t wearing a mask when I approached him and didn’t bother to even after confronting him. The irony of most mask-sellers (predominantly men) is that they don’t wear a mask themselves. Tarun explained why a mask is needed and was aware of how to dispose of or store a mask. Yet, he seemed nonchalant about wearing one himself because “Corona toh ekhon kome geche (Corona has decreased now).”

Most sellers don’t make masks at home. Instead, they rely on wholesale sellers to buy cloth masks, N95s and surgical masks. Both Tarun and Shiuli sell all kinds of masks and see the highest number of sales in surgical masks. Younger people tend to buy colourful fabric masks while working men mostly buy N95 masks.

Mask-sellers I talked to in Durgapur say that their sales were higher last year when panic and fear around Covid led people to buy and stock masks for themselves. Now, they see customers more aware of multiple options for places to buy masks. The sale of masks now is lower than it has ever been throughout the pandemic. Surgical masks remain the consumers’ favourite.

It’s evident that many people make a fashion statement using masks. People wear colourful patterns or strictly solid colours to match their outfits or the occasion of their outing. Going out of the house has become a highly anticipated event for many post the pandemic and it shows when they carefully plan a mask to wear and when.

While fabric masks offer a variety of possibilities, surgical mask makers have understood the assignment. The black surgical mask has made a bold move that is now jumping from celebs to the masses, especially teens. While fashion trends continue to evolve, this might promote the use of masks and be a cheerful distraction from fighting a pandemic.

Besides aesthetics, putting up a mask when you have a common cold is a simple and effective manner to protect others from catching on to your cold. East Asians have long practised this. It seems like a cultural hard-wiring they are born with. On the contrary, other parts of the world have responded to wearing a mask as something shocking, uneasy and even difficult to accommodate in their daily life.

Personal liberty to not wear a mask sounds revolutionary on Facebook posts. I wonder if this personal liberty comes at the cost of others’ lives — children and immunocompromised people in this case. And how many people are willing to pay the price?

Will India be able to reach a scale where surgical masks are accessible to all? Plenty of fake medical masks with inefficient structures circulated during the initial stage of the pandemic and continue to do so. Even if the sales of medical masks surpass that of cloth masks across all demographics of India’s population, will the country take a stand on banning cloth masks?

If public health communication happens to work wonders and convince people to wear masks at all times when they are outside, are there authorities to be concerned over the disposal of masks? Is the increase in the production of single-use surgical masks an imminent threat to waste management in the environment?

Studies continue to compare the efficiency of cloth masks to that of medical masks. It is evident from studies that cloth masks don’t offer equal protection as medical masks. However, this can’t be a reason enough to discard or ban the use of cloth masks altogether, especially in a country with limited resources and their inequity and inaccessibility. Experiments on designing cloth masks with optimal performance are also underway.

No matter the type of masks that stay in consumer trend, it is safer to protect yourself with layers, safer than exposing yourself to the virus in your surroundings. Masking, washing hands, social distancing and getting vaccinated with due time should be our priorities.

The author is a Kaksha Correspondent as a part of writers’ training program under Kaksha Crisis.

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