by Sonia Ounissi
PARIS, Nov 23 (Xinhua) -- Spools of thread, stacks of fabric, rubber bands, scissors, needles and a sewing machine. Fatima's apartment in L'Isle-Adam, a suburb in northern Paris currently under maximum coronavirus alert, doubles as a face-mask workshop.
Fatima first started sewing cloth face masks during the spring lockdown, in response to a call by the city hall for volunteers to support the community's COVID-19 response. By now, she has become a "master mask maker," specializing in small-size protective gear that even children fancy to wear.
"During the first confinement, I felt that I needed to do more than stay at home and just read the depressing news," the 48-year-old housewife told Xinhua.
Fatima was one of 40-odd volunteers who responded to the local authorities' call. Between the end of March and early May, they put together and donated more than 3,000 reusable masks to those in need in their neighborhood.
Fatima herself stitched together some 500 masks, which she then shipped over to the city hall. In the first weeks of November, she also designed and donated 75 creative masks to 13 families with children.
When the coronavirus crisis took a turn for the worse in mid-March, protective gear became in short supply throughout France. The country's three million health workers used five masks per day per person, which meant that 15 million masks were needed each day.
The broad public -- 61 million people in total -- was also required to wear face masks in enclosed spaces or in crowded outdoor places where physical distance could not be maintained.
However, in the early days of the epidemic, France had a strategic reserve of 145 million face masks only, and its production capacity did not exceed eight million masks per week.
All this caused a frenzy of buying as mask prices rocketed from five euro cents (0.059 U.S. dollar) before the outbreak to 0.95 euro in early May.
Thanks to the collective efforts during the first confinement, France saw the daily number of new reported COVID-19 cases drop to below 1,000 in May from over 4,500 in the first half of April.
This gave Fatima and her fellow volunteers some breathing space, although she felt that the worst was yet to come.
"After the lockdown, people were somewhat careless," she said. "In parks, restaurants and supermarkets, they ignored the safety rules. I read news about crowded private parties, where hundreds of young people got together without respecting the social-distancing rules. So, in the absence of a treatment or a vaccine, I expected the virus to strike again."
And it did strike again. After a relative lull during the summer, France saw its coronavirus cases creep up anew. In early September, the daily increment of infected people surpassed 10,000, overshadowing the first wave figures.
The situation reached the tipping point in early October, when France recorded over 20,000 daily infections with an average of 20 people taken to intensive care units each day.
Despite the night-time curfew, the total number of COVID-19 cases surpassed one million on Oct. 23, forcing the government to impose a second lockdown on Oct. 30. It is now scheduled to last until early December.
Under the new rules, school children aged six and over must wear masks in class. Previously, mask-wearing was compulsory only for kids aged over 10.
It was therefore time for Fatima -- mother of three girls herself -- to pull out her sewing kit again. Using fabrics she brought back from Italy, she began to sew masks specially designed for children, who are often reluctant or are not accustomed to covering their faces in public.
"I relied on my own initiative," Fatima explained. " I thought that adding some color and drawings may make the masks more acceptable for them. A kid might be excited to show his original mask to his friends and classmates."
Pink, purple, orange or green -- a range of colors with a variety of drawings, from a smiling face, flowers, little hearts to cars and balloons. Each child in the neighborhood receives two "designed-by-Fatima" masks for free per day.
In a pharmacy, a cloth face mask for kids costs four euros, or a two-pack sells for six euros in supermarkets. The price of a box of 50 surgical masks is 13 euros today, up from six euros before masks became mandatory for children.
On average, a family with two children uses two to three single-use masks per day, which costs them around 40 euros per month. For large families, the cost of protecting themselves can be downright prohibitive.
"It's wrong that a product required by everyone for the sake of public health should be bound by a free market, competitive system," argued Alain Bazot, president of the consumer association UFC-Que Choisir, in a recent interview. "As far as I know, when we made vaccinations mandatory, the cost was not passed on to families."
Bazot argued that the government's decision to offer masks to disadvantaged families and individuals was not enough as there were countless less well-off people for whom this extra-expense was "completely unbearable."
"It's the least I can do," said Fatima with a big smile. She continues to offer her self-made creative masks to children in her neighborhood. (1 euro = 1.18 U.S. dollar)
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