Wearing face masks is now mandatory for workers, visitors to markets, shops, banks, government and private institutions, and for commuters taking public transport. Failure to comply can result in a fine of up to LE4,000.
And with curfew hours shortened, and many offices back to work since the end of the Eid Al-Fitr holiday, more people than ever need masks.
One-time use medical mask cost between LE4 and LE7, a substantial outline in Egypt, where a third of the population lives below poverty line.
On Sunday, Minister of Trade and Industry Nevine Gamea announced that from next week washable cloth masks, which can be used up to 30 times, will be available on the market for LE5.
“The mask is now a necessity of daily life as Egypt comes to terms with co-existing with the virus,” Gamea said in a telephone interview with MBC Misr TV.
“While normal medical masks are disposable, the cloth mask can be used between 20 and 30 times, provided it is washed daily.”
Gamea said the Health Ministry has issued standards for the cloth and dyes to be used in making washable face masks.
“We have given the details to textile and clothing factories, and they started production earlier this week,” said Gamea. She added that one factory is already exporting cloth masks to France.
Following meetings with representatives from the textiles and garment sectors, Gamea said Egypt was in a position to manufacture eight million fabric masks a month, and that capacity could be expanded to increase the figure to 30 million.
Before the emergence of COVID-19, local consumption of disposable masks was 180 million annually, of which 120 million were imported from China, according to Ali Ouf, head of the pharmaceutical division of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce.
The arrival of the new coronavirus has been accompanied by a steady rise in the price of disposable masks. Standard, locally-produced medical masks, which sold for LE2 before the crisis, now retail at between LE4 and LE7 in pharmacies, while online packs of 50 masks can be had for between LE90 and LE180.
A medical supplier, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained the reasons behind the price variations.
“Some factories supplying the local market are unlicensed, which means they do not pay taxes. They often use substandard materials and sell their masks — almost always online — at cheaper prices.”
The licensed factories that pharmacies use to source masks have to meet set production and sterilisation standards, and the materials they use are monitored. That is why their prices are higher, says the medical supplier, before adding “it is better to buy slightly more expensive masks from a reputable supplier than cheaper online alternatives from an unknown source.”
On Monday, head of the Federation of Egyptian Industries’ Medical Supplies Division Sherif Ezzat told CBC that 80 per cent of the masks being sold locally do not meet international medical or preventive standards.
Hani Sobhi, 38, has been wearing a cloth mask made by a well-known underwear manufacturer for almost a month now.
“It is durable and washable, and I can choose between different colours,” says Sobhi.
“Recently though, after reading different opinions about cloth masks, I became uncertain about their safety specifications and whether they really can prevent transmission of the virus.”
A study published in May in the Annals of Internal Medicine found cloth masks fared surprisingly well against medical masks in terms of filtration efficiency. Furthermore, the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (eg, grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas with significant community-based transmission.
On Saturday, Health Minister Hala Zayed appealed to all citizens to adhere to the regulations on face masks.
“I hope that we all wear masks, and no one leaves their house without one... even a piece of cotton cloth will do.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 June, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly