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Coronavirus (COVID-19): Lessons From the East and DIY Surgical Masks

COVID-19 is one of the names given to the novel coronavirus. Image by Miguel Á. Padriñán @ Pixabay.

COVID-19 is one of the names given to the novel coronavirus. Image by Miguel Á. Padriñán @ Pixabay.

Good and Bad Examples

Today, several governments around the world are scrambling to contain the coronavirus, some in more competent ways than others. In Asia, there are some examples that are worth paying attention to, not only because the pandemic wreaked havoc there first, but also because people there have experienced both this virus epidemic and the worst of the SARS outbreak of 2003, which was caused by another coronavirus strain. Furthermore, the responses to the virus from some Western politicians have been less than commendable; speculations abound, and there is a lot of uncertainty.

In a previous article, I briefly mentioned the strategy of South Korea, which has given good results and differs a little bit from the one implemented by China. Singapore is said to be another good example, praised by The Economist as a model for others. But, besides learning from the measures taken by these governments, we can also learn from the people of these countries.


The first cases of coronavirus in Singapore appeared in late February, after travelers imported the virus from China. At the first sign of trouble, the Singaporean government took action without hesitation: It started restricting travel, tracking infected individuals, taking temperature at public venues, canceling events, and also using a strict new law against fake news to curve the spread of misleading information and rumors regarding the novel coronavirus.

It is said that the government and society as a whole were well-prepared for an outbreak, since they had suffered greatly during the SARS epidemic almost 8 years ago and had been cautious ever since. Nevertheless, the battle against the virus has not been without complications.


One of the virtues of the Singaporean government is that it stockpiles rice, pharmaceuticals, and protective equipment, such as surgical masks, during peacetime. This is the reason why they had a vast amount of surgical masks to rely on during the first weeks of the coronavirus outbreak. While some regions were facing shortages, Singaporeans had relatively easy access to the now highly coveted items.

Panic Shopping

However, lately some local residents have gone on shopping sprees clearing supermarket shelves, and panic-buying behavior could seriously strain the local economy. This is the reason why the Singaporean Minister of State for Trade and Industry mentioned that no amount of stockpiling could save them if people were not calm. This is a reminder of the importance of staying calm during this outbreak.

Protesters in Hong Kong: Petrol bombs were thrown at the lobby of a residential compound  in protest against a plan to turn the building into a quarantine zone.

Protesters in Hong Kong: Petrol bombs were thrown at the lobby of a residential compound in protest against a plan to turn the building into a quarantine zone.

Hong Kongers

Hong Kong's response to the outbreak has been overshadowed by protests, criticism, bomb threats, and actual bombings. During the days when the outbreak in China was peaking, the Hong Kong government was implementing their first prevention measures like barring those who had been to Wuhan, the epicenter of the outbreak, from entering the city.

However, locals remembered the SARS nightmare that had struck the city in 2003 and wanted to avoid another epidemic at all costs; they were ready even before the virus had entered the city, putting their masks on and staying on high alert.

The Citizens Respond

The government of Carrie Lam faced the difficult task of protecting the citizens of Hong Kong from the coronavirus while at the same time pleasing her superiors in Beijing. This was most evident when her government hesitated to shut Hong Kong's borders with mainland China. And while the Hong Kong government was being criticized for their mild and sluggish response to the virus, some locals took matters into their own hands, like the case of a theatre group which, amidst the shortage and pric- gouging of face masks, began producing the scarce goods, or the filmmaker who also set up his own surgical mask factory.

It would be ludicrous of me to suggest to people to go out there and buy face mask–making equipment so they can run their own factory; however, making your own surgical mask is not such a far-fetched idea, as I will explain next. Also, I do believe the actions of these local Hong Kongers are fine examples of a kind of attitude that is much more valuable and works much better than panicking: proactivity.

The image is from the instructional video released by the university hospital. The legend in Chinese reads ”大功告成“ which dictionaries translate as successful completion, or a task that has been accomplished.

The image is from the instructional video released by the university hospital. The legend in Chinese reads ”大功告成“ which dictionaries translate as successful completion, or a task that has been accomplished.

DIY Face Masks

In February, researchers from the University of Hong Kong, including some of the top scientists confronting the coronavirus, endorsed the idea of home-made face masks. They published instructions on how to make your own mask to tackle the hike in prices and the lack of supply. They even conducted studies and found the masks to be a pretty good makeshift protection—above 80% of effectiveness.

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While I was in quarantine in the mainland, masks were hard to come by, and I tried to follow the instructions to make my own. Luckily, soon after this, the local government started providing small rations to residents, and so my short-lived mask-making career came to an abrupt end. I didn't complete my own mask and so I cannot attest to their use, but you can still give it a try.

Supply List

Here is what you need to make them:

  1. Kitchen roll and strong tissue paper.
  2. Elastic bands.
  3. Hole puncher.
  4. Paper tape and scissors.
  5. Plastic-coated wire.
  6. A Pair of glasses.
  7. Plastic file folders.
  8. Binder clips.

This list above is obviously not restrictive, and you can surely use materials that you deem stronger or are able to make your mask more aesthetically pleasing, if that is one of your concerns.

Video Instructions

You can check the video on how to make these masks below.

Handbook by Chinese Experts

I was thinking of sharing some examples of what locals from the community where I live in China did, but since I talked about similar things in a previous article, I thought of doing something different this time. I want to recommend to doctors to check the English version of a handbook of coronavirus treatment published by experts in China—but, here is a disclaimer first, because I dislike politics, politicized topics, and biased or propagandistic discussions.


  • The handbook was written by Chinese experts, it is of a technical nature, and it was published and endorsed by one of Jack Ma's foundations. For those who may be wondering who this Jack Ma character is, he is a Chinese magnate co-founder of the Alibaba Group, and a person in such position cannot be said to be unrelated to or unassociated with his country's authority.
  • After a bit of hesitation, I decided to mention this handbook, especially after I saw on the news the story about Dr. Kurt Kloss soliciting suggestions from a medical Facebook group. In Dr. Kloss's defense, the group was composed of emergency room doctors; however, it still makes me uneasy and I find it alarming that people are going to Facebook for medical advice.
  • I mention this handbook because it does seem to provide valuable technical information.
  • The handbook is distributed free of charge; however, the file seems to be unavailable when accessed from certain countries (one of the virtues of content behind a government firewall, perhaps).

The title of the publication is Handbook of COVID-19 Prevention and Treatment, published by The First Affiliated Hospital, Zhejiang University School of Medicine. It covers topics like isolation area management, hospital protocols, etiology, diagnosis and different treatments, rehabilitation therapy, discharge procedure, and many others.

Be Proactive, Stay Positive, and Don't Panic

So, please remember not to panic and stay calm. Clearing shelves is not the best thing to do; neither is throwing bombs. Be proactive, stay positive, and if you have to stay at home, try to make the best of it.

I spent more than a month in my apartment in China, since most venues and stores were closed, and I not only had a chance to rest from my work schedule and to forget my alarm clock, but also an opportunity to hone my cooking skills. Today, my fried rice is exquisite.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Lou Ungar


Ku on April 04, 2020:

this is very helpful information! I have seen how in our local communities people are feeding fear, when staying calm and united is what we need. Thank you!

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