At 1 a.m. on March 14, Armen Abrahamian addressed his fellow Armenians in a video livestream from Echmiadzin, a city that was locked down soon after multiple coronavirus cases were discovered there on March 11.
“Imagine this was a war -- anyone who sold bullets for profit would be acting unacceptably. It’s the same situation with the [coronavirus pandemic]. It’s absolutely wrong to make masks and sell them for profit.”
He then called for help: He needed volunteers, materials, and somewhere to work.
A few days before the video was made, Armen was in the hospital as his wife underwent a medical procedure. He was shocked to see the staff hurrying through the halls without face masks. A nurse told him masks had become virtually impossible to buy amid fears over the spread of the coronavirus.
Armen, who runs a hair salon in Echmiadzin, decided to do something to help. He bought 100 meters of the surgical fabric used to cover hospital beds, as much elastic as he could get, and a sterilizer. Then his family and neighbors began stitching together homemade face masks.
Medical experts say surgical masks without a tight seal on the face such as the ones the Echmiadzin volunteers are producing will do little to protect the wearer from the coronavirus. But the masks -- designed for surgeons to prevent saliva from landing on patients -- do limit the spread of viruses from people already infected. In a pandemic such as the coronavirus, where some patients are known to carry and spread the disease before showing any or only mild symptoms, such masks can help to limit the contagion.
RFE/RL spoke to Armen’s brother, Khatchatur, who has helped make and distribute the masks to a hospital and stores throughout Echmiadzin. Khatchatur says people “can’t believe it” when they are told the coveted masks are free. As well as delivering them to medical facilities and shops, he has also handed out dozens of masks to traffic police manning the roadblocks around Echmiadzin who he says “are on the front line” of the crisis as they interact with the public.
Khatchatur, who works as a taxi driver, says most pharmacies in Armenia ran out of face masks days ago, and that some people were selling them for 1,000 Armenian drams ($2) each -- more than 50 times their usual price. He estimates the volunteers have made and handed out around 4,000 masks free of charge in the first four days the operation was running.
Since Armen’s video was released, the team of volunteers has been flooded with offers of help, and there are now some 45 people working on the project. Armen says the team has enough materials and they have been able to move out of his family dining room and into a workshop offered to them. They were also given an extra sewing machine. The only things he says the team still need is another sterilizing machine and more people with the ability to sew.
Khachatur says the team is taking time out of their lives for the project because at the prices masks are now fetching “a lot of people can’t afford them, and this is a serious issue. So we’re making sure as many people as possible here have access to a mask.”
Armenia had reported 64 cases of coronavirus as of March 17, including at least 38 linked to Echmiadzin. The country declared a state of emergency on March 16.