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How the face mask became the world's most coveted commodity

The global scramble for this vital item has exposed the harsh realities of international politics and the limits of the free market.

(Guardian) If Ovidiu Olea is astonished by the fact that he’s gone from being a finance guy to a mask mogul in four months, he shows no sign of it. The transition started innocuously. Late in January, when the coronavirus spread beyond Wuhan, Olea decided he would buy masks for his staff. He lives in Hong Kong, where he runs a payment technology firm. His staff isn’t large – just 20 employees – but finding even a few hundred masks proved hard. Part of the problem was that last year, after protesters in Hong Kong used masks to hide their identity, the Chinese government restricted supplies from the mainland. Before the pandemic, half the world’s masks were manufactured in China; now, with production there shifting into overdrive, that figure may beas high as 85%. If China isn’t sending you masks, you likely aren’t getting any at all. We have no masks, local pharmacies told Olea, but if you find some, we’ll buy them from you.


Olea got to work. In a journal article, he read that epidemiologists spoke highly of N95 respirators, masks that filter out 95% of small particulate matter. Stealing time out of his day job, Olea began phoning N95 suppliers in Mexico, Turkey, Indonesia, Ireland. Each one turned him down. “The answers ranged from ‘No’ to ‘We only sell to accredited buyers’ to ‘Come back next year,’” Olea told me. After three days, Olea found a South African firm named North Safety Products, which had 500,000 masks in stock. Olea bought them all, at less than a pound per mask, certain that he would be able to sell the surplus.

During their conversations, North Safety Products executives warned Olea to be careful. There were “interested parties” lurking outside its factory gates, ready to bribe truck drivers for their cargoes. Olea hired a security detail to ride alongside his truck of masks as it drove to the airport in Johannesburg. (He sent me a photo of the team: six grim men packing pistols and rifles, clad in camo and bulletproof vests. “They asked if I wanted machine guns as well. I thought not. We’re not invading Lesotho. Let’s keep it reasonable.”) In mid-February, two weeks after he placed his order, his shipment touched down in Hong Kong. Within six hours, the buyers he had signed up had collected nearly all of the masks. “Even if I’d had 5m masks,” Olea said, “I’d have sold out.”


Olea, who has a keen nose for business opportunities, quickly became possessed by this new line of work. Since February, as the pandemic has streaked around the planet, he has bought and sold on another million N95 masks from North Safety Products. In March, Olea became a middleman for Chinese-made three-ply masks, too, the simple kind that just about everyone everywhere is now opting to wear. He sold masks to the Hong Kong government, to European countries, via their diplomats in Hong Kong and China, and to European companies, which wanted them for their employees. All told, Olea reckons he’s sold about 48m of them.


By April, Olea decided he might as well take the next step. He bought a mask-making machine from a Chinese manufacturer: an eight-metre-long assembly line, which shapes and cuts sheets of plastic into masks. When I spoke to him, in mid-April, I was reading about mask prices close to £6 a pop, and Olea was waiting with giddy excitement for his machine to reach him. He was still running his payments firm, and masks were a departure from that work. “But these are weird times,” he insisted. “We all must do something to survive.”

No object better symbolises the pandemic than the mask, and no object better explains the world into which the pandemic arrived. Social distancing, at first, felt like a strange notion: the inaction of it, the vagueness of it. But the mask sang out to our deepest consumeristic impulses. In the absence of a drug or a vaccine, the mask is the only material protection we can buy; it’s a product, and we’ve been trained like seals to respond to products. As a result, in every corner of every country, the humble face mask – this assembly of inexpensive plastic – has been elevated into a fetishised commodity. One mask broker described it as “a madhouse”, another as “the craziest market I’ve ever seen”.


Countries have hoarded masks, and used them as chips in geopolitical games. Thieves have made off with them. Prada, Gucci and Balenciaga have started to manufacture them. We already have MaskClub.com which, like a “jam of the month” club, offers $9.99-a-month mask subscriptions: the best-beloved business model of hipster e-commerce. Last year, an industry insider told me, Burberry had toyed with the notion of putting face masks on some of its models during a catwalk show – a wink, perhaps, at our apocalyptic future. By March, things had become real, and the fashion house was pledging to make masks and gowns for the UK’s NHS. From a healthcare perspective, the mask was a matter of life and death. But it also took on the function of a talisman – as an object to hang comfortingly between the body and a diseased society.

All this when no one even seemed to know precisely how useful masks were, or who should wear them. The advice we got was a mess. The World Health Organization maintained, at first, that healthy people had no need for masks. But people bought masks anyway. Shelves were emptied. People improvised. A friend of mine in Tel Aviv ended up fashioning one for herself out of her husband’s boxer shorts – washed and dried, she assured me, and slid over her head like a balaclava. Then, in early April, the WHO reversed its counsel, and a host of governments followed suit, which sparked a fresh run on mask stocks.


In this pandemic, the mask reveals far more than it hides. It exposes the world’s political and economic relations for what they are: vectors of self-interest that ordinarily lie obscured under glib talk of globalisation and openness. For the demagogues who govern so much of the world, the pandemic has provided an unimpeachable excuse to fulfil their dearest wishes: to nail national borders shut, to tar every outsider as suspicious, and to act as if their own countries must be preserved above all others.


When these tendencies combine with a fawning loyalty to the free market, the results can be ruinous. In mere weeks, the mask went from being an urgent human need to a cynically exploited asset in a global resource grab – the fastest such journey, perhaps, of any product in history. Sometimes, it felt as if the mask itself was beside the point – that it was just a trigger to rehearse old routines of acquisitiveness and discord, with no further, greater end in sight.


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We’ve been living with the coronavirus long enough now that we can distinguish the various tribes of mask-wearers. Note the shopper in the pasta aisle, clad in a classic white N95 with the 3M manufacturer logo just under the snout. The N95 and its equivalents keep out nearly every particle larger than 0.3 microns, and although the virus is tinier, the fibres in the mask’s layers obstruct its passage. These masks are meant to go first to healthcare workers, which might explain the shopper’s furtive, guilty eyes. Note the finance bro out for his allotted hour of jogging, wearing a Vogmask – a brand so stylish that its midnight-blue model might even match his suit when he eventually returns to the City. Note the extreme worrier in the GVS Elipse P100, the heavy-duty mask that promises to keep out 99.97% of particles. In the age of Covid-19, the equivalent of sensible shoes may be the simple surgical mask or the home-hemmed cloth. The gaps in their weave are big enough for the virus to pass through, but they do at least protect others from the wearer’s sneezes and coughs.


Such deep familiarity with masks is hard-won. The pandemic has brought on a global shortage of masks, which is really a global shortage of one particular plastic inside the masks – a type of non-woven polypropylene that acts as a filter. In casual conversation, people in the mask business call the plastic “meltblown”, referring to how its plastic filaments are made. Meltblown goes into many things: jackets, nappies, filters in water purifiers and air conditioners. Masks are in short supply not because they’re difficult to produce, but because the meltblown industry is used to stable, long-term demand. It churns out just enough for its customers and no more. To install an assembly line of meltblown takes many months, even at the calmest of times; with demand now soaring, some companies supplying meltblown equipment are quoting timelines of up to two years to even deliver a new machine.


Hot out of the plant, meltblown looks like a giant toilet roll: 15,000 yards or so of polypropylene wrapped around a cardboard core. The material feels like synthetic cloth, but it’s so thin that you might accidentally put your finger through it, an executive at one American meltblown manufacturer told me. He asked to keep his and his company’s names out of this article, for a reason I’ve never been given before. They don’t want to be known more widely, he said: “We’re so overburdened with enquiries already. If any further information gets out, that’s another thousand messages coming in every day. That makes it impossible to do any work.” Until last year, just 2 or 3% of his company’s meltblown went into face masks, he said. This year, it’s 95%.

Until now, countries didn’t consider meltblown a strategic commodity, so during the past three decades, much of its production has migrated from the west to low-cost factories in Asia. The executive’s company is one of just five or 10 remaining manufacturers in the US, he said, and China produces close to half of all the meltblown in the world. As a result, the rush for masks provided a compressed, vivid reminder of something we’d been aware of for a couple of decades now: that in all manufacturing and trade, the lines of commerce inevitably bend towards China.


Early in February, the Chinese government began preventing exports of meltblown, so that the material could first be used to assemble masks for China’s own population. The prospect of being cut off from half the world’s meltblown supply “put the fear of God” into everyone who manufactured anything that contained it, the executive said. The market price of meltblown went up fourfold. He began to get 200 or 300 phone calls a day from mask companies all over the world, demanding meltblown. Even Chinese mask manufacturers rang him, worried that their country might run out. They’d offer cash up front and try to outbid each other. “They’d say: ‘Name your price, any price you want to, anything,’ and I’d explain that we don’t do it that way,” said the executive. Then they dangled bribes before him: all-expenses-paid holidays. Just tell us where you want to go.


Also in February, the Chinese government effectively made itself the sole customer of the major mask-making factories in its territory. This applied to Chinese-owned companies, but also to big mask plants in China owned by foreign firms; their products were earmarked for domestic use and banned from being shipped overseas. On 3 February, in an apologetic letter to customers, the British company JSP Safety said that its output of masks was running low, because two of its Chinese factories had been “formally requisitioned by the government to make disposable RPE [respiratory protection equipment] for Chinese government agencies”.


Christopher Dobbing, who founded the Cambridge Mask Company in 2015, said his own factory in China was small enough to escape the government’s notice, so his inventory wasn’t snapped up by the authorities. But he did see, first-hand, the wave of Chinese panic-buying. “Chinese communities everywhere snapped up our masks wherever we had a footprint, so that they could send them home,” Dobbing said. Chinese companies overseas were also asked to purchase and ship back masks. On 26 January, Dobbing got 1,200 emails and 400 phone calls. “Maybe they thought we were a huge company, but we were just a couple of guys in an office, panicking as the orders flowed in.” By 28 January, he was taking pre-orders for March.


Roughly 2bn masks were imported into China in February. To those with a kneejerk mistrust of China’s rulers, it appeared as if, having first failed to contain the disease, they were now ransacking the mask market just when the coronavirus was starting to race through other nations. After a Chinese real-estate company in Sydney was discovered to have bought millions of masks, the Australian Medical Association urged its government to keep protective gear safe from foreign buyers. A lawyer attached to Donald Trump’s re-election campaign compared China’s actions to “first-degree murder” and wondered aloud if the US could sue Beijing. The US state of Missouri then went on to do just that, arguing in its lawsuit that China had “hoarded personal protective equipment – thus causing a global pandemic that was unnecessary and preventable”.


But for the US and the rest of the west to complain about China aggressively pursuing its own interests is, in one way, to engage in a fundamental duplicity. China’s wealth and power are the result of a longstanding international consensus championed by the US: that the quest for the lowest possible cost of production and the highest possible profit is paramount. According to this philosophy, if that means offshoring nearly everything to China, nothing must be allowed to stand in the way: not the hollowing-out of industry at home, or the loss of livelihoods, or human-rights concerns. And it isn’t just China that has prospered from this arrangement. It has also been good to the richest people in the richest countries. Many of those same people now seem affronted by the world they helped create.


As events transpired, few large nations behaved very differently from China once the disease blazed up within their own borders. “A dog-eat-dog world is back,” one former Polish diplomat lamented, as if such a world had ever gone anywhere in the first place.


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By mid-March, China had relaxed its rules, allowing both masks and meltblown to be sold overseas again, to nations that were now in dire need of pandemic gear. But the market kept failing: supplies of masks often didn’t make it to doctors, nurses, the elderly and others who required them most.


During the great global scrum that followed, governments used every conceivable means to get hold of masks for their citizens before they went elsewhere. Foreign embassies in China turned their diplomatic staff into scouts for medical supplies; Canada hired a multinational consulting firm to help figure out which manufacturers could be trusted. Freight agents in China, who book space on ships and planes for goods leaving the country, found themselves handling medical equipment and little else. One agent in Shanghai, Fredrik Barner, had been shipping auto parts until this spring, when he was flooded with orders to move masks instead. “I’ve been in the industry for 10 years and I’ve never seen such high air-freight rates,” Barner told me. “Normally, the rate is around $3 or $4 a kilogram. That went up to $17 or $18.”


Nations that couldn’t make enough masks for themselves had to find unconventional ways to bring them in from China. In Ireland, the government asked Aer Lingus to run supplies out of Beijing. The airline had never flown to China before, and the planning and approvals for a new route would usually have taken six months. Aer Lingus did it in a week. Brian O’Sullivan, Aer Lingus’s chief flying instructor, captained the first plane to Beijing on 27 March, taking with him four other pilots, two engineers and a specialist in balancing loads in an airplane. Ten hours out, six hours on the ground, then 13 hours back: the kind of flight schedule that is, for a single crew, inconceivable in regular aviation.


They landed in Beijing very early on a Sunday morning. Through the plane’s open door, O’Sullivan noticed that the airport, which usually buzzes like a beehive with flights landing and taking off, was practically in hibernation; in six hours, he saw just half a dozen or so departures. His crew never left the aircraft, O’Sullivan told me, because that would have required them to go into quarantine. Instead, they stayed in business class, behind thick plastic drapes, while ground handlers loaded first the cargo hold and then economy class: huge green bags filled with masks, gowns and gloves were strapped into the seats, as if the cabin had been booked out by gigantic pods of peas. “We didn’t shake hands with anyone,” O’Sullivan said, “but there were plenty of smiles and thankyous and nodding heads.” When I spoke to him in mid-April, Aer Lingus had completed 30 Beijing flights, and expected to run another 200 or so by the end of May.


To meet the rush for masks, a strange alternate ecosystem of suppliers sprang up, often supplying products of dubious quality. In Europe, several buyers of Chinese masks found their products to be sub-standard. The Dutch government had to recall 600,000 masks. Finland discovered that an order of 2m surgical masks, which are discarded after use with a single patient, weren’t good enough for hospital wear. Even if they had been up to scratch, those 2m masks would have only met the country’s needs for four days.


It wasn’t always clear who was producing these masks. Being in the trade, Christopher Dobbing got a number of emails throughout March and April from Chinese mask vendors he’d never heard of before. He sent me a few of them, and I rang one of the listed numbers, in the city of Zhangjiagang, 100 miles or so from Shanghai. A woman picked up and introduced herself as Rita. She told me that the company she worked for had been selling K95 masks since the first week of March, for $2.50 a pop. I asked if they manufactured the masks as well.


She laughed. “No, we make tin plate. But our clients in America and Europe asked if we could source masks, so we do that now,” she told me. “We get them from a big factory nearby, which makes masks.”


I asked how long it would take to send 10,000 masks to London. She couldn’t say. There weren’t many flights out of the country, and after some batches of exported masks had been found to be defective, Chinese customs authorities were inspecting mask cargoes more rigorously. A friend of hers, another mask vendor, had been waiting two weeks already for one of her shipments to clear customs, she told me.


The factory that actually made the masks belonged to another company, Rita said. Chinese manufacturers that produce masks for medical use in the west must be certified by government health agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration. Rita assured me that the manufacturer had an FDA certificate, and she emailed me a scan to prove it. It had been issued on 1 April. In the space where the manufacturer’s name should have been displayed, there was just a short span of white space followed by the generic words Technology Co., Ltd. It looked like any company might print its name into the blank space and make the certificate its own. On the FDA’s database, I looked up the certificate’s number. The FDA had awarded it to Jiangsu Newborn Medical Technology Co, Ltd – a different company altogether.


Among those tempted to reinvent themselves as mask merchants were drug dealers, who used the crisis to diversify their portfolio. Logan Pauley, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies in Washington DC, tracks the sales of illicit drugs on the internet, focusing on trafficking from east Asia to the rest of the world. Towards the end of February, he noticed that some of the dealers he monitors were advertising masks and gloves. He sent me screenshots. “Mask, 3ply, 50pcs per box, 20 box min. $33.50 per box, exclude shipping charges,” ran one Facebook post by a user named Vicky, in a group where people otherwise offer fentanyl for sale.


It was difficult to know how to feel about these transactions, Pauley said. On the one hand, Vicky’s masks might well be of terrible quality, and there was a danger that the masks would be deliberately mislabelled, whisked through US customs, and then sold on to US hospitals short of gear. “Customs is swamped right now,” said Pauley. “They’re not going to be opening and checking every box.” On the other hand, he said, the FDA and other international authorities that license medical supplies “have made it difficult, in this time of need, to get new suppliers approved in a timely fashion. If the masks are good, the hospital may be paying three times the price for them, but it’s still better than waiting for FDA approvals.”


He was right. If I’d been a hospital administrator in critical need of masks, perhaps I’d have placed an order with one of these shadowy brokers. In the absence of government supplies or a well-ordered mask market, the seediest corners of the internet seemed to offer one of the few ways to find any masks at all.


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Alongside the new mask middlemen and the criminal elements finding a fresh vocation, there were the groups who had never fabricated a mask before, but who had a sure sense of money to be made. From February onwards, legions of new mask-makers emerged, of every size and shape: from big companies such as BMW to the amateurs the meltblown executive characterised as “four neighbours in a cul-de-sac in Los Angeles, who’ve gone on to the internet to learn about sewing masks”. A face mask-making machine costs about $100,000, he told me, and it makes about 70,000-100,000 masks a day. He has received at least 200 enquiries from Americans who are importing machines from China – “people who just have 100K to spend and a bit of space, and want to make some money.”

You’d like to think they have some experience doing this, he said, but many of them don’t know a thing. They ring him when they’re expecting a new machine in three weeks, to ask vaguely for mask textile.


“Do you want meltblown?” he asks them.


“Yes.”


What about noseclips? What about spun-bound polypropylene, the plastic that encases the melt-blown?


“Oh, we need to get some of that, too, do we?”


And then, the executive said to me with a sigh: “I have to spend half an hour teaching them about mask manufacturing.”


All these breakdowns in the market – the hospitals without masks, the bogus gear, the exorbitant prices, the hoarding, the fly-by-night profiteers – seem to expose the limits of orthodox economics. The most ardent devotees of the free market believe that supply and demand solve every basic problem if they’re permitted to work unconstrained. When demand is high, the price climbs, and the prospect of profit brings in a host of new suppliers. With time, the market rewards those who sell good products and punishes those who sell poor ones; with time, the price settles so that it allocates products most efficiently to those who value them most.


That’s the theory, anyway, and its advocates insist that it applies even in a crisis. In 2012, for instance, researchers at the University of Chicago asked eminent economists for their opinions on Connecticut’s plan to outlaw price-gouging – exploitatively high prices – during floods or other weather cataclysms. Seventy-seven percent of the economists thought that governments shouldn’t curb or interfere with prices – that, all things considered, the best way to get vital goods to those who needed them was to put no reins on the market at all.

But this pandemic has provided a huge weight of evidence to the contrary: tales of hoarders, of doctors and nurses so short of protective gear that some wore bin bags and snorkels, and of deals so desperate that a security training company, bankrupt for months and with no employees, somehow won a $55m contract to supply masks. These failures happen, in part, because ordinarily the market’s idea of efficiency involves getting products to those willing to pay the most for them. In a crisis, or even outside of one, that isn’t the same as getting products to the maximum possible number of people who need them.


“I have always thought that economists were obsessed with efficiency, no matter what happened to distribution,” Angus Deaton, the Nobel-winning economist, told me. But distribution is what matters, particularly in an emergency. During this pandemic, the best scenario for everyone would be to get masks to doctors and nurses first – “we want to keep them well, so that they can save our lives and the lives of others,” said Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford economist who studies periods of panic and uncertainty. But high prices in unregulated markets keeps masks out of reach for the hospitals that need them. By the time the market culls bad suppliers, stabilises the price and compels hoarders to sell, the disease has spread and people have died.


Solving this, Bloom said, requires a hand on the tiller: steering the market in ways that classical economists tend to dislike. One strategy is to cap prices so that they don’t become exorbitant but still offer the kind of profits that draw new manufacturers in. Bloom also thinks governments should requisition masks for their health services first, before allowing the rest into the market. “It’s no different from how food was rationed during the world wars. Or how Britain bought tanks from Vickers during the second world war. It didn’t have to take over the firm. It just offered a fair price. This is the same,” he said. “This is like an economy in wartime.”


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For anyone who views the prevailing international order as a brutish contest for resources, disguised occasionally by noble words and fine treaties, the scramble for masks offers a perfect little parable. It has taken on the appearance of a zero-sum struggle straight out of a game-theory seminar: with limited supply and endless demand, one mask for you is one mask less for me. To this austere truth, nations have reacted in familiar ways; amid the novel chaos created by Covid-19, old enmities and hardened habits reassert themselves.


So when, in early April, news anchors in Pakistan complained that China had sent their country masks made out of underwear, Indian nationalists on Twitter launched a mocking hashtag. A couple of weeks before that, when British tabloids reported on French border guards impounding two trucks of masks earmarked for the NHS, it confirmed the worst suspicions of every Eurosceptic. “This shows you all you need to know about European cooperation,” Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader and ardent Brexiter, told the Sun. When the EU did invite Britain to take part in a bulk purchase of protective apparel and ventilators, though, the government passed. The reason appears to be either the stubbornness of its Brexit spirit or its ineptitude in checking its email; both seem equally possible under Boris Johnson’s government.


The US, for its part, treated the procurement of masks as a smash-and-grab operation. In April, an incredible account emerged of Americans brandishing cash on the runway of a Shanghai airport, buying up a cargo of masks that was already on a plane, ready to fly out to France. No one quite clarified who these Americans were, or how they barged onto the runway, but the episode enraged French officials. In its wake, Renaud Muselier, the president of the regional council of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, chose to bring his masks home by sea. “At least that way, I can be sure nobody will steal my masks from the tarmac,” he told a French TV station.


The US was also accused of waylaying masks in Bangkok before they flew on to Germany, and of blocking the delivery of 3m American-made masks to Canada. Last month, Ovidiu Olea, the Hong Kong entrepreneur, purchased 50,000 sets of masks, gloves and coveralls, which he planned to donate to the health service in his native Romania. “Everything else was ready, and then my coveralls supplier called to say that some Americans showed up, paid three times the price, and bought my order out from under my nose,” he said.

In the EU, relations between member nations have prickled with tension over the lack of masks and other gear. By the end of February, there were more than 1,000 coronavirus cases across Italy, and it needed more protective gear – masks in particular. Around that time, a legislator in Italy’s coalition government told me, France and Germany implemented national laws that declared masks as strategic assets, which meant that if masks were transiting through these countries, bound for elsewhere, they could be appropriated. For a while, she said, France and Germany kept hold of some masks that Italy had ordered from India, Turkey and Vietnam.


“In those darkest moments, China stepped in and offered 200,000 masks as a present,” the legislator said. A plane landed in Rome, carrying masks and gear but also traditional Chinese herbs: an exercise in what has come to be known as “mask diplomacy”. Not long afterwards, France and Germany lifted their mask seizure laws and sent free masks to Italy. But by that point, the legislator said, “the damage had been done”.


Since then, Italy has bought more than 20m masks from China, but China has been expert at projecting these sales as an extension of its benevolence. The Chinese government now buys full newspaper pages for advertorials that laud its assistance to Italy. After we spoke, the legislator texted me an opinion poll by an Italian thinktank, in which 52% of respondents named China as Italy’s best friend. “Look at the list of enemies,” she wrote. On top: Germany at 45% and then France at 38%.


“It’s alarming,” she said, “how the public isn’t seeing that European institutions are actually doing a lot for Italy.” Germany reserved dozens of intensive-care beds for Italians, flew them in for treatment and delivered ventilators to Italian hospitals; France sent hundreds of thousands of protective suits. But China’s mask diplomacy has fanned a mistrust of the EU kindled years ago by Italy’s populists. The legislator sounded despondent. “I wish I could say this mask diplomacy isn’t working very well. But it is, unfortunately.”


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Whatever the new normal is after this pandemic, everyone I spoke with agreed on one thing: there will be masks. Lots and lots of masks. They’ll be handed out on airlines and at hotels; they’ll be stacked next to the till at Boots; they’ll be stashed in sock drawers and linen closets in practically every home. Every country will produce and stockpile its own supply, unwilling to rely any more on the vagaries of the international market; Germany, forever ahead of the curve, has already begun.


We already guessed, before the pandemic, that one version of our future would entail masks for billions of us. It’s the version in which we keep burning carbon, polluting our air and aggravating global warming so much that our land keeps going up in flames. But that still felt distant enough to be somewhat avoidable. We could hope that, however slowly or inexpertly, countries would pool their energies to stop this. Now, though, the age of masks has arrived sooner than we anticipated, brought on by an entirely different threat altogether. And the manner of its arrival carries a warning: that with the world as it is, the solidarity needed to battle climate change may be impossible to secure, and that the future of smoky skies and rising seas is the only one that lies ahead of us.


Ovidiu Olea’s mask machine arrived from China on the third Monday of April. It can cut and hem 50 masks a minute; it has no casing of any kind, so a bystander can observe its innards as sheets of polypropylene pass through the machine’s automated rollers and slicers. “It needs just two people – one to load the material, and one to press the emergency stop button if necessary,” Olea said. He has rented some space in a former bottling plant, but he hasn’t begun manufacturing yet. He wants to make medical-grade gear, and for that he needs to set up a clean room and sterilisation facilities. If all goes to plan, his first masks will roll off the line in mid-summer.


He wasn’t worried about the delay. However outlandish the circumstances that cast Olea as mask manufacturer, he was still preparing to settle into the role for the foreseeable future. He didn’t think Covid-19 was going to disappear any time soon. “I think it’ll end up being some sort of seasonal disease – like the flu, but with harsher consequences,” he said. “And this disease has changed attitudes towards mask-wearing. Earlier, people in Italy would giggle at the sight of Chinese tourists walking around wearing masks. Now there aren’t many giggles left.”

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