Even the worst crisis ever has its silver lining. If one has to choose items which have gained the status of the most sought-after consumer goods mask would occupy the front rank. In the pre-pandemic times mask had a very limited use. The doctors, nurses and to some degree community health workers would use medical masks for safety reasons. Wearing mask in public was very unusual except for patients prone to infection. Another group to use mask for a specific purpose would be snatchers and robbers. But even masks have their day. COVID-19 has made masks ‘popular’ beyond imagination. After initial hesitation, with day-to-day increase in incidents of infection and relentless warnings masks have become omnipresent. Not wearing a mask in public places lands us up in lot of trouble. In course of time, it has become a status symbol too.
Indian cities have now visible shops and kiosks selling variety of masks. The markets look so colourful with fabric masks hanging prominently. The demand is not short lived. It is here to stay. One reason is that masks have a limited lifecycle because they are mainly made from cloth. The market for masks is further bolstered by advice by doctors and epidemiologists that old masks are to be discarded after a reasonable period of use. Gauging the market mask manufacturers are resorting to some creative actions. Kerala has been a pioneer in designing masks with 3D printers. These masks have the exact impression of one’s face under the nose to make oneself easily recognizable. Now such masks are found in different parts of India. Some mask producers are also putting up social messages like ‘Combat COVID’ on masks. Some have even gone further in making what they call fun masks with messages like ‘I am a Virus Myself!”.
Several textile industry representatives predict that in near future festivities and celebrations requiring new garments would simultaneously unleash major demand for masks. In Kolkata, for instance, with Durga puja few months away there is a rush for production of designer masks. Already marriage ceremonies are taking place in which bride, groom and relatives are seen wearing attractive masks, matching with their dress. Several top-end textile and fashion industries are producing expensive masks, including those made with expensive silk and Benarasi. The Hindu on 24 May reported that leading textile and fashion brands such as Shoppers Stop, Fabindia, VIP Clothing, Zodiac, and Aditya Birla Fashion and Retail brands such as Peter England, Allen Solly, Louis Phillipe and Van Heusen are all piling up their respective mask collections. Some fashion shows have already taken place with prominent models doing the catwalk wearing masks. Online shopping websites for trendy t-shirts and mobile covers are also attracting customers with masks covering catchy and funny phrases. They also have certain discount offers with t-shirts and mask combo packs.
The emergence and expansion of the mask market has also done an important economic service to some small businessmen who incurred heavy loss during the lockdown. They have started selling masks and are earning enough to survive. A number of NGOs are training people to make masks for a living. Though this cannot be a lasting solution it is at least for the time being providing some relief to those who are otherwise in severe distress from loss of livelihood thanks to the pandemic. In a gendered angle many rural girls and women are now utilising their sewing skill in creating masks for the market. In an indirect manner their cause has been promoted by constant official warnings about the need to wear masks to resist coronavirus. The celebrities, who are also publicizing masks in social advertisements and ‘lockdown’ period- plays and short films are indirectly boosting the mask market.
In a sudden, unexpected but interesting development masks are thus becoming a new source of sustenance to some at the bottom of the economic ladder on the one hand and becoming part of fashion statement to upper middle class and elite sections of our society. On both counts economy is benefitted. One can hardly think of any other consumer good having played such dual role in the past. Let there be masks as long as the pandemic lasts. In the post-pandemic era, if it ever happens, they would remain part of our history!