Should we be shifting to transparent masks?

When was the last time you exchanged smiles with someone on the street? As masks become everyday attire, MetroPlus explores if there is need to shift towards transparent versions

July 14, 2020 05:15 pm | Updated July 15, 2020 12:50 pm IST

It hasn’t been an easy year for Tina Saighai. Founder of Sanket Foundation in Delhi, Tina is hard of hearing.

Owing to the pandemic, everyone around her has half their faces covered, and Tina struggles to communicate — with security personnel in buildings, grocery store owners, neighbours... “But the most critical was a recent visit to a doctor, who was not just sitting six feet away, reducing audibility, but was also wearing a face mask which made it impossible for me to understand his instructions.”

There is no doubt in her mind that it is imperative for each person to wear a mask to prevent the spread of the novel Coronavirus. Masks have become a mandatory part of our attire, spurring everyone, from luxury brand designers to your local tailoring shops, to start manufacturing and selling cloth masks.

Unfortunately, that leaves a sizeable section of the population without a means for smooth communication. Alim Chandani, a deaf activist and founder of Access Mantra Foundation, explains, “Indian Sign Language isn’t only about using hands, but also facial expressions and body language.”

After having to double efforts to figure out other ways of communicating with shop owners, auto drivers, people who deliver food — he tried typing messages on his phone but not everyone was patient enough for that — Alim via Access Mantra Foundation, and Tina’s Sanket Foundation put out a survey to see if other people with hearing impairments were facing the same problem.

“Out of the 850 responses from the bilingual survey (in written English and ISL videos) that we sent out to the community, about 80% of them said it is hard to see the full facial expression with the masks on. With an important component of language missing, this can easily lead to misunderstandings in communication,” he says.

Data from a survey by Access Mantra Foundation and Sanket Foundation

Data from a survey by Access Mantra Foundation and Sanket Foundation

And so, they are collaborating with IIT Delhi to make face masks with transparent windows which allow for lips to be read.

“These have 99% bacterial filtration efficiency and conform with ASTM (American Society for Testing and Materials) standards of breathability and splash resistance,” he says.

For the greater good

In India, transparent masks have so far mostly been designed for the deaf community. The Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment’s NIEPVD in Dehradun has also come up with similar transparent window cloth masks.

World over too, the idea of transparent masks for everyday use in a much broader sense is getting momentum. According to the World Economic Forum, in Switzerland, the Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne and Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology had started researching on how to make surgical masks transparent after receiving feedback from medics treating Ebola outbreaks in 2015. They have recently launched transparent surgical masks, which are expected to be available from next year.

The US has companies such as LEAF and ClearMask, while in France, Civility is taking the momentum forward. Transparent masks like these are made from reusable and washable plastic sheets, and available only on pre-order currently.

The central idea is that a shift to transparent masks would benefit everybody — because of something called the social engagement system in human beings, explains Mansi Poddar, Kolkata-based counselling psychologist. “It is a part of our nervous system that controls and picks up facial cues,” she says. “It indicates to another being whether we are ‘safe’ or ‘unsafe’. Not being able to see people’s faces prevents you from understanding whether they are ‘friendly’.” What it boils down to, essentially, is the lack of the instinctive comfort and reassurance we get when we smile at each other.

“Masks,” says Mansi, “are not friendly — they are reminders of wars and pandemic. And in their presence, our sympathetic nervous system is in constant alert mode.”

Right now, our eyes are the only way we can emote, and not everyone can be expressive that way. It also becomes disconcerting for some children in the autism spectrum to understand what is expected of them. “Some get stressed when people have stuff on their faces, and they can’t tell if they are angry, happy, or upset,” says Merry Barua, director of Action for Autism.

None of this, of course, is to call for a removal of masks, but only to shift to ones that allow for better communication.

Innovations in India

On the other side of the metaphorical table is Dr A Mohamed Hakkim. The emergency physician from Tiruchi noticed the discomfort a patient, who is hearing impaired, was having in understanding his instructions. His interaction prompted him to collaborate with a tailor friend from Coimbatore and manufacture a cloth mask with a transparent sheet specifically for that person.

TIRUCHI, TAMIL NADU, 23.05.2020:- Mohammed Hakkim, who developed transparent masks for people with hearing impairment displays his masks at Tiruchi on Saturday. Photo.M_Moorthy / The Hindu

TIRUCHI, TAMIL NADU, 23.05.2020:- Mohammed Hakkim, who developed transparent masks for people with hearing impairment displays his masks at Tiruchi on Saturday. Photo.M_Moorthy / The Hindu

Once the mask design underwent successful testing, he prepared a thesis on transparent masks and presented it to ICMR. In the meanwhile, he has been distributing these transparent masks at ₹10 per piece in Tiruchirapalli, Madurai, and some zones of Chennai. He has also been in talks with the Tamil Nadu Government for production of these masks.

“These masks will be useful not just to the deaf community but also for healthcare workers,” he says, “As a doctor, when I wear a conventional mask and ask patients to do something, I can seem brisk and rude. Because they can’t see me smile. Patients will be more emotionally comfortable seeing the face of the doctor, especially in sectors like psychiatry and paediatrics… It will reduce the feeling of isolation and depression.”

Delhi’s Desmania, headed by Anuj Prasad, recognised this “obvious human need” back in March, when the pandemic’s toll started rising in India. Their product AARMR is a combination of a face shield and mask — it sits on the whole face and covers it without hiding it. “In our feedback from customers, the biggest problem we saw people facing was the obstruction in body language, as they couldn’t see each others’ expressions,” he says.

After continuous iterations to provide better breathability, safety and to reduce fogging, the company is currently making 100 masks a day, selling for over ₹700 per piece.

“We hope to amp up productions as we are getting more and more enquiries every day,” he says.

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