Surgical masks: A new burden on the family budget

The coronavirus crisis and its repercussions have increased the economic burden on citizens in Egypt, by adding new requirements to their daily request bills, including “alcohol [sanitiser], masks, and gloves” (prevention and disinfection measures). With the government announcing the implementation of a mandatory decision to wear masks in public transportation and public places at the beginning of this week, and the increase in the number of infections, the attitudes of citizens differed according to their economic ability to purchase them.

The government is seeking, in cooperation with the private sector, to increase the supply of medical respirators, and is also seeking to produce millions of cloth masks at a price of EGP 5 ($0.31), with standard specifications so that they are reusable, to counter the virus, continue work and open the economy. The price of regular medical masks, which are not readily available, ranges between EGP 5 and 10 ($0.31-0.62), while the price of N95 masks reaches about EGP 200 ($12.34).

Governmental business owners and some workers in the private sector have a comparative advantage in obtaining the masks most often provided by their workplaces, while free labour or irregular business owners must provide them at their own expense. In an attempt to avoid financial penalties imposed on those who violate the new rules, a number of Egyptians began producing reusable cloth masks which are more economical than medical masks.

Many mothers who have resorted to making cloth masks at home admit that they know that the effectiveness of that mask is much less than that of a medical mask, but if it is not possible to purchase medical masks, or pay fines, the alternative is a cloth mask. According to a number of parents in Egyptian families, they had to pay costs of medical masks for them and their families, up to more than EGP 500 ($30.81) per month.

One parent told Egypt Watch that one mask is about EGP 5. “If I use every day at least one mask, then this means EGP 150 ($9.24) per month, meaning I and my family have more than 500 masks per month.” But other parents said that this cost is not enough, because they spend their entire day on the street because of their work, which means that they will not use one mask per day, but more than that.

Over the past weeks, the rates of infection have made great jumps, and the total number of infected people has reached nearly 33,000, among officials and ministers’ confessions that the true number of infected people and deaths is seven times higher than the declared figures. Nevertheless, the demand for buying and manufacturing fabric masks continues to increase.

In an effort to ease the costs on Egyptian families who are suffering greatly economically since the liberalisation of the local currency exchange rate in November 2016, the cloth masks began to spread, at a price of EGP 20 ($1.23) per mask, and can be reused many times.

One of the parents says that he bought five cloth masks for EGP 100 ($6.16) for all his family members, instead of paying more than EGP 600 ($36.97) per month. He makes his point clear that he was not prepared for any additional new costs, and that the burden of the mask was unsustainable. The father admits that he knows that the cloth mask is ineffective, but adds that he has no alternative, and that he cannot pay the cost of medical masks for his family. Of course, the father said, “of course, I fear corona infection, and I do not want any of my children to be infected, but I fear hunger more.”