PISEK, Czech Republic, March 22, 2020 (AFP) - What do prisoners, a former first lady and textile makers have in common? All have threaded their needles to combat a dire global shortage of face masks that risks the health of millions amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Just a week ago, the small Czech company Nanospace was producing bed linen using nanomembrane -- a textile with a very fine web of nanofibres -- to protect allergic sleepers from mites.
But as the deadly novel coronavirus started reaping its grim toll in Europe, Nanospace workshops began churning out 10,000 nanomembrane face masks per day for two hospitals in the southern Czech Republic.
The company produced the first masks within two days of a desperate call from the local city hall on March 14.
"We charge them (the hospitals) at cost price. If the hospitals collapse due to a shortage of masks, our region will be in big trouble," Nanospace sales director Jiri Kus told AFP.
The World Health Organisation recommends wearing protective masks in public, despite some experts saying masks and gloves are ineffective in preventing coronavirus infections.
Tens of thousands of Europeans are joining forces via social media to sew masks as millions are confined to their homes under lockdown measures imposed to prevent COVID-19 infections.
A Czech Facebook group called "Czechia sews face masks" went viral, drawing over 33,000 members over the last week as Prague ordered citizens to wear masks outdoors and closed borders to stem the spread of the virus.
Artists and celebrities including actress Dagmar Havlova, the wife of late Czech president Vaclav Havel, have also pitched-in to make masks.
In neighbouring Poland, Chechen women who arrived as refugees have teamed up with women's groups to sew masks for hospitals.
Mask-making has also taken off in Italy, the worst-hit country in the world.
Deaths surged past 4,800 as of Saturday, with more than 53,000 confirmed infections.
Italian clothes and textiles-maker Miroglio has swapped sewing women's fashion for cotton face masks, rapidly ramping up production to 75,000 units per day with a view to hitting 100,000 soon, the La Stampa daily reported.
Businesses in hard-hit Spain are also making the switch.
Bag maker Disenos NT told AFP it was producing 70-80,000 face masks per day in its Andalusian factory, working "at 100 percent capacity, 24 hours, seven days a week."
The Galicia-based Inditex, the world's largest fashion group that owns Zara among other popular brands, is also looking to begin making face masks at some plants, joining smaller Spanish textile companies already at work.