Why these two East Vancouver residents are distributing thousands of N95 masks for free

·3 min read
Jane Shi, left, and Vivian Ly are seen wearing N95-style respirator masks. The two East Vancouver residents have started a community initiative to distribute thousands of the masks amid a widespread lack of mask-wearing. (Submitted by Masks4EastVan - image credit)
Jane Shi, left, and Vivian Ly are seen wearing N95-style respirator masks. The two East Vancouver residents have started a community initiative to distribute thousands of the masks amid a widespread lack of mask-wearing. (Submitted by Masks4EastVan - image credit)

Two East Vancouver residents have distributed thousands of high-quality N95 masks in the last two months in direct response to what they say are "neglectful" public health measures concerning disabled and immunocompromised people.

Jane Shi and Vivian Ly are the organizers behind Masks4EastVan, which was started in May this year, two months after B.C. lifted mandatory masking requirements in most indoor public spaces.

For Shi and Ly, the lack of a mask mandate meant they — as disabled queer people of colour — were unable to access public spaces safely.

"We're still in the middle of the pandemic. It's not over," Ly told CBC News. "We're seeing this kind of dissonance where … cases [are] still going up, but there aren't enough public health measures to fill in those gaps.

"We're left to fill these gaps in ourselves with these kinds of community initiatives."

Submitted by Masks4EastVan
Submitted by Masks4EastVan

They say the community response has been overwhelmingly positive, with over 4,000 masks and 250 rapid tests handed out so far since Masks4EastVan began.

No widespread public health measures are currently in force in B.C. regarding COVID-19, despite signs of a seventh wave and increasing pressure on the health-care system.

Officials say that those who choose to wear a mask "should be supported," but it remains a personal choice under provincial guidelines.

Shi says B.C.'s approach is out of touch with the science surrounding COVID-19, which shows that it is an airborne virus that can lead to the debilitating chronic condition known as long COVID.

"We want to contribute to a cultural shift that is rooted in disability justice," she said. "Not just disability rights, which [are] individual rights … but also a societal change that would be more sustainable for all of us."

Asian seniors benefiting from masks

Masks4EastVan currently fulfils free deliveries through a request form and also had a pop-up event at Pandora Park on June 18 that saw them give out masks in person. They are funded by donations, tracked publicly on a spreadsheet.

Ly said the community response at the event was so overwhelming they ran out of masks within 15 minutes.

They say that Chinese and Cantonese-speaking seniors and multi-generational families showed up to the event. They've also received requests from disabled and racialized people, Downtown Eastside residents and long-term care workers.

Rogelio V. Solis/The Associated Press
Rogelio V. Solis/The Associated Press

"We're hoping to distribute 12,000 masks by the end of the year," they said. "What we want is a collective response to this pandemic, not an individual one."

Scientific evidence shows that N95-style respirator masks are more effective at stopping the spread of COVID-19 than cloth or medical masks but are also more expensive. Unlike the U.S., B.C. has never handed out free masks to the public on a widespread basis.

Lack of appropriate communication

Masks4EastVan has distributed awareness materials around N95 mask usage and how to ward against COVID-19 in both English and traditional Chinese.

Ly says the government should reinstate the mask mandate, distribute high-quality masks, and roll out a multilingual education campaign around the risks of COVID transmission and long COVID.

For Shi, the Masks4EastVan initiative is rooted in "mutual aid" —  a long-term form of interdependent care, "imagining and implementing a way of taking care of each other beyond the pandemic."

Submitted by Masks4EastVan
Submitted by Masks4EastVan

She says she hopes the initiative will eventually stop when the pandemic ends, but that wouldn't occur without a concerted effort to prevent transmission.

"We want disabled people to go out and have fun and be part of everyday [life], and that can't happen without widespread masking," she said.

"We're used to non-disabled people abandoning us and mistreating us. So, we have developed systems within ourselves to take care of each other, and we want everybody to join us in this work."

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