GULU, Uganda,- When the Ugandan government ordered all non-essential workplaces shut to contain the coronavirus pandemic in late March, Peter Okwoko and his colleague Paige Balcom kept working.
But the pair – who had been turning collected plastic waste into building materials since last year – shifted gear and instead began manufacturing makeshift plastic face shields from discarded plastic bottles.
When they posted pictures of their prototypes on social media, they got a surprise phone call from the local public hospital.
“The doctor from Gulu regional referral hospital requested we make 10 face shield masks urgently because they didn’t have enough” and the hospital had just received its first COVID-19 patient, said Okwoko, 29, a co-founder of Takataka Plastics.
The social enterprise set to work shredding plastic, melting it and shaping the liquid plastic into face shields and frames. Soon a first set of shields was delivered.
But “in the afternoon, the hospital called again. They said they needed more face shields because the previous ones had worked out well for them”, Okwoko said.
As the coronavirus pandemic continues to burn around the world, it has also caused severe disruptions in supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
The problem is particularly severe in poorer countries with few resources to pay high prices in a competitive global market. In March, WHO officials urged companies around the world to increase production by 40% if possible to meet growing demand.
In Uganda, medical workers have discussed work boycotts to protest the lack of protective equipment in hospitals, especially after several healthcare workers were confirmed infected with the virus.
“The situation is critical. Many people are working without PPE,” Dr. Mukuzi Muhereza, secretary general for the country’s health workers’ body, the Uganda Medical Association, warned last week.
“That is hampering the fight against COVID-19 because there’s fear among health workers that anytime I touch a patient I might be a COVID patient myself,” he said.