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Homeland Security

In France and Elsewhere, Making Face Masks Becomes a Mission

By Lisa Bryant April 16, 2020

Among the rolling vineyards of France's southwestern Gironde region, osteopath Chloe Chancelier has found a new calling as she organizes a small volunteer army to sew cotton masks for health workers.

Outside Paris, Anthony Seddiki has organized a network to churn out thousands of hospital visors using 3D printers. And in the Loire Valley, a luxury fabric maker is redirecting supplies normally heading to upscale stores to create a more prosaic, if vital, accessory to help slow COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

In France and elsewhere, the widening pandemic has catapulted even ordinary cloth face masks into prized objects, while surgical ones have incited fraud, hoarding, panic buying and political squabbling. But today, soaring demand for masks is generating a new vocation for locked-down populations and businesses -- along with a spirit of solidarity and enterprise some hope will continue post-crisis.

"I'm very happy to see what's happening," Chancelier said of her pro bono startup that uses locally sourced, recycled materials. "For me, it's the beginning of other things."

A community effort

Not so long ago, masks were barely seen on French and other European streets. Today, they are increasingly coveted, sometimes even worn as fashion statements, despite conflicting government signals about their usefulness.

In France, at least, a pro-mask consensus is developing. Earlier this week, President Emmanuel Macron pledged that every citizen could access one by May 11 -- when authorities hope to start easing France's lockdown. A BFMTV poll out Wednesday found 94 percent of French respondents now support mask-wearing. A growing number of municipalities are now launching mandatory mask measures -- sparking an increase in local production efforts.

Chancelier's initiative began last month, after the lockdown shuttered her health clinic.

"I was getting calls from clients and friends who are midwives and nurses and who only had a few days of face mask stocks," she recalled.

Chancelier said she searched online for homemade alternatives, finding a YouTube tutorial for a design fitting government-recommended standards. She launched a Facebook group looking for volunteers and material.

So far, Chancelier's network of roughly 50 sewers has supplied the community hospital and local agencies with hundreds of free masks. She now has orders to make hospital gowns. Residents are donating old sheets and even diapers as material. Local vineyards and municipalities are offering spools of inexpensive elastic normally used to tie up vines.

"It's a real human network," Chancelier said.

Each mask comes with instructions on proper use, she said, and space for wearers to add an extra layer of protection.

Putting out the fire

Similar pro-bono efforts are spreading across France. In the Essonne region outside Paris, packaging technician Seddiki also launched a Facebook volunteer drive to make visors for area health workers.

"I'm surprised at how big it's grown," Seddiki told Le Parisien newspaper of his network, which has distributed more than 100,000 visors free of charge.

In the Loire Valley, high-end fabric maker Le Tissus d'Avesnieres is offering material at factory prices, while 200 tailors have formed a nonprofit to meet local needs.

The initiatives contrast with less uplifting reports of theft, hoarding and unseemly international free-for-alls to secure scarce supplies. Earlier this month, French and German officials accused the United States of diverting masks and other equipment meant for their own countries -- accusations U.S. officials denied. France, too, has been accused of seizing masks bound for Spain and Italy.

Meanwhile, European police announced Tuesday they had foiled a multimillion-dollar scam to sell non-existent masks to Germany, one of many reported in recent weeks.

In Gironde, Chancelier is mulling how to keep her pro bono movement alive after she heads back to work next month.

She likens grassroots initiatives like hers to an ancient Quechua culture legend of a hummingbird trying to put out a forest fire with tiny beakfuls of water.

"Even after this crisis is over," she said, "I hope people remember they participated in the response. They put in their own drops of water into the fire."

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