Masks4EastVan notes the importance of wearing masks

Jane Shi and Vivian Ly started their organization to distribute masks to those most at risk

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This is a photo of an individual sitting on a bench outside. They are wearing a mask while they look at their phone. They are sitting alone.
PHOTO: Aria Amirmoini / The Peak

By: Karissa Ketter, News Editor

Masks4EastVan is an initiative started by two SFU students. Jane Shi is a fine arts graduate student and Vivian Ly is an undergraduate student. Both identifying as queer people of colour, they began this initiative to put pressure on the government. “We hope to sustain this work as long as we can, though we are only two disabled volunteers ourselves,” said Ly in an interview with The Peak. 

COVID-19 has been shown to disproportionately affect racialized and disabled people because of social inequalities: living in worse environmental climates, less access to healthcare, and reduced access to social services. “We weren’t going to wait for the government to keep us safe.” 

The organization “is a grassroots mutual aid project that distributes N95 or equivalent masks to neighbours in East Van and to rural parts of British Columbia.” 

Since BC has stopped the province-wide mask mandate, the amount of people wearing masks has decreased rapidly. This decision has been a part of what created strain on the healthcare system in the past year across Canada. Hospitals face issues with staffing, workload, and hospital capacity. 

Doctors are asking citizens to wear masks indoors to help ease the strain on the healthcare system, especially as other respiratory illnesses are circulating at higher levels than what’s to be expected for the season. Wearing a properly fitted mask can reduce the risk of infection from 56–83%, depending on the type of mask. CBC News reported hospitalizations for COVID-19 are higher this fall than any other fall throughout the pandemic; these numbers have almost doubled from October 2021 and are nearly four times more than October 2020. 

Former scientific director of Ontario’s COVID-19 science table, Dr. Fahad Razak, told CTV News Canada should reinstate the masks mandate to reduce transmissions. Since November 9, the University of Waterloo has reinstated their mask mandate to be in effect until the end of the fall academic term.

According to Shi, their goal is “to create access to personal protective equipment that would otherwise be unaffordable to communities in East Van and remote parts of the province.

“We knew that there were many people who were still struggling with being safe out in the community and not being able to afford high quality masks, especially low-income disabled people and people in congregate settings,” said Ly. “As a low income, disabled person myself, I struggle to regularly buy effective well-fitting masks for myself and have to rely on others or on programs giving away masks for free. I knew many others in the same boat as me.”

Shi added wearing masks helps create more accessible spaces. A study conducted across over 60 school districts found schools with a universal mask mandate had 72% fewer cases of COVID-19 compared to schools where masks were optional. Shi hopes to see more people wearing masks so disabled people can safely go out into the community. “That’s a collective effort that shouldn’t be placed on individual disabled people or even individual grassroots efforts. The onus is still on the government.”

Ly explained they created this initiative in response to the “lack of financial supports and equitable policies coming from the government.” Shi added that despite “individual politicians supporting and donating to us, we know that we can’t rely on slow-moving, ineffectual policies before looking out for one another and creating mitigation efforts.” 

Ly and Shi noted people who use drugs, people who are incarcerated, “immunocompromised folks, sex workers, front line direct services workers, poor folks, [and] houseless folks” are often the most at risk for having a lack of access to personal protective equipment. Shi added, “This is reflective of the systemic inequities and layers of oppression within Canadian society.” 

At the time of the interview, Masks4EastVan had distributed over 13,000 masks around the community. They provide large masks, medium masks, youth masks, and transparent masks which help those who are deaf or hard of hearing read lips.

Ly said, “Many do not realize how deeply ableist it is to tell immunocompromised and other disabled people at high risk for COVID-19 to just stay home.” Throughout the past year, many with disabilities have advocated for stronger COVID-19 measures to be able to safely participate in daily activities. 

Ly explained roughly 25% of disabled people are low-income. This means they “cannot afford the expenses to simply stay at home, avoiding school, work, public transportation, grocery stores, [and] medical appointments.

“We all know at least one immunocompromised or at risk person, whether they disclose it to you or not.” Roughly 22% of all Canadians over the age of 15 have at least one disability, according to the Government of Canada.  

Masks4EastVan is currently fundraising for their initiative. At the time of publication, they have fundraised over $9,500 towards their goal of $20,000. 

To learn more about Masks4EastVan, or to contribute to their fundraiser, visit their website at chuffed.org.