Overseas Vietnamese mask gap in counter-Covid-19 supplies

By Pham Nga   April 11, 2020 | 06:05 am PT
Kati Nguyen sews and teaches her fellow Vietnamese in America how to make masks for local hospitals.

Stores and restaurants in Tamaco City of Washington state had been closed for days, except Kati Nguyen’s 80-meter-square tailor shop. In the last three weeks, the sound of sewing machines has seldom stopped as, with 25 years’ experience, she tailors masks for her family and clients.

"I watched the news and discovered hospitals do not have enough masks. Many of my friends are doctors and nurses, who said the amount of medical masks were not adequate, so I decided to make some," Nguyen said, adding she has delayed many orders to focus on making masks during this time.

Kati Nguyen prepares to send masks. Many doctors and nurses use Kati’s mask alongside deminishing medical equivalents. Photo courtesy of Kati Nguyen.

Kati Nguyen prepares to send masks. Many doctors and nurses use Kati’s masks alongside diminishing medical equivalents. Photo courtesy of Kati Nguyen. 

Knowing she could not make a lot on her own, Nguyen called on the Vietnamese community in Washington and was surprised by the support. The area surrounding her 4,000-meter-square house was packed with the cars of many Vietnamese from across who are eager to learn how to make masks and donate material.

As more and more people came, Nguyen made sure to maintain the recommended social distance with others. The group of Vietnamese sewers used small heaters to keep warm, with some supplying up to six sewing machines to share. A layer of antibacterial cloth was added inside each mask to ensure safety.

"It is easy to make masks, but we did not have enough rubber bands at first so we had to use cloth for straps, taking more time. Now we have enough material," Nguyen maintained. 

When everyone knew what to do, she advised they stop gathering to avoid close contact and to remain proactive in sourcing materials and donations. 

Some Vietnamese still frequent Nguyen’s tailor shop for materials and return with handmade masks before Nguyen dispatches them to those in need.

Medics at a hospital don cloth masks donated by Kati Nguyen. Photo courtesy of Kati Nguyen.

Medics at a hospital don cloth masks donated by Kati Nguyen. Photo courtesy of Kati Nguyen.

So far, 54 hospitals and clinics have received 10,000 cloth masks from  Nguyen. Nurse Nancy Ann used to have only one mask for a 12-hour shift. 

"I felt hot and humid, it was inconvenient. We are surprised and grateful to see you giving free masks to hospitals," Ann told Nguyen and her teammates.

Many local newspapers reported on Nguyen’s mask-making campaign. Reading the news, David Elliott drove one hour from Seattle to Nguyen’s place to receive a mask.

"He gave me $50, but I told him I do not take money. His eyes were teary, he told me to use that money to buy materials and make more masks for local hospitals," Nguyen recalled.

She also gave up on the habit of cooking in her family. Kevin Barnett, Nguyen’s husband, does not complain about anything. He is now proud of his wife, whom he calls a hero.

Masks donated by Bang and his friends are placed outside a building in Russia. Photo courtesy of Ho Sy Bang.

Masks donated by Bang and his friends are distributed near an apartment building in Russia. Photo courtesy of Ho Sy Bang.

In Russia, Ho Sy Bang struggled to find masks in March, calling on his friends for possible solutions. 

Immediately, he received dozens of phone calls from Vietnamese textile firm owners in Moscow, telling him they were ready to make and give away free masks, of which Bang is in charge of receiving and distributing.

Phan Hung, owner of a textile workshop with over 100 employees, decided to give a hand after talking to Bang online.

Hung had planned to make masks at the start of the pandemic, but was not allowed. Local authorities eventually gave the nod by the end of the month.

"I saw many people did not have enough masks, while I have enough materials to produce them for free. To ensure safety, we spent one day cleaning the workshop before starting producing," said Hung, whose firm has supplied 17,000 masks thus far.

Hung is one of seven Vietnamese business owners distributing free masks to both Vietnamese and Russians. Those who cannot make masks, donate money for food and medicine.

"Free masks. Please take 1-2 if needed," reads Bang’s notice at several pharmacies and buildings. While handing out supplies, he always wears a mask and gloves himself to spreading avoid.

"I gave cloth masks to a nearby pharmacy once. They were surprised," Bang recalled, adding they called him a hero and angel.

Natalia, representing 1,500 residents near Malakhovskoe Lake, said she had received 500 masks from Bang and wanted to ask for another 100.

"From our heart, people from Malakhovskoe Lake want to say thank you for giving us these free masks. We told our fellows about your kindness," she said. " Thank you very much. Please stay healthy keep up the good work."

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