Across Mizoram, 400 tailors are stitching a resistance to the COVID-19 pandemic

Tora Agarwala

Across Mizoram, tailors have come together to stitch Personal Protective Equipment for those fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Express photo

The shutters might be down at the JT Fashion House in Aizawl’s Zodin Square, but inside, the apparel store is abuzz. The usual mannequins, in lace tops and well-tailored skirts, have been stowed away. Instead, five women are furiously cutting reams of cloth. They have been at it for more than 24 hours, says Jenny Lalduhsaki, who owns the store. “These will then be shipped off to our tailors in various parts of Aizawl. And they will stitch, stitch, stitch.”

Almost a week into the lockdown and four days after a 50-year-old pastor tested positive for COVID-19 in Mizoram, a network of tailors/designers or puanthui, as they are called in Mizo, have sprung into action. Their job is to stitch protective gear, under the guidance of doctors and nurses, for those men and women working through the COVID-19 pandemic — medical professionals, policemen, truck drivers who are carrying essential supplies and the members of Mizoram’s Local Task Force, the civil society-constituted brigade, responsible for executing a smooth lockdown in the state.

Hundreds of kilometers from JT Fashion House, in the Lunglei district, a tailor named Dothangpuii, is clacking away at her sewing machine. There is no dearth of tailors in trendy Mizoram. “But what we are doing now is different and we feel really good about it,” says one of the five women at JT Fashion House, who did not want to share her name, “I didn’t do this so my name comes out in the papers — this is for our medical team, for our state, for India.”

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), or gear to safeguard health workers, includes a variety of items: face-shields, masks, gloves, coverall/gowns, head covers, shoe covers, Hazmat suits etc. 

A shop in Aizawl sorting through different kinds of cloth. Express photo

On Friday, a consignment of 10,900 sets of PPE, 10,000 N-95 masks, 200 infrared sensors and 900 pairs of shoe covers, was chartered to Mizoram’s Lengpui Airport by the state government. “We purchased it from the Central government and it was airlifted into the state,” said Mizoram Health Secretary, H. Lalengmawia. 

Still, the Mizo community is taking no chances. In the last two days, “PPE Volunteer Committees” have formed across districts in Mizoram to make masks, boots, scrubs, disposal gowns etc. Today, in living rooms and bedrooms, at least 400 tailors are under curfew, but busy at work. 

How does it work under a lockdown?

On Thursday, C Lalramdini, a professor at the Regional Institute of Paramedical and Nursing Sciences (RIPANS), made the clarion call: a Facebook post, with a link to join a Whatsapp group. “I was sitting in my room and just reflecting. This was an epidemic, there was going to be a shortage, no matter how hard the government tried. I suddenly remembered all the expert tailors in Mizoram, and thought, why not use the talent?” says Lalramdini. The response was tremendous — the Whatsapp group reached its maximum membership limit in two hours.

That was when Ruby Ngente, a Mizo homeopathy doctor based in Nashik, Maharashtra, came into the picture. “I can’t go back home because of the lockdown so I wanted to help out,” says Nengte, who is helping coordinate. “We decided to streamline the process, make sub-groups, connect to the administration etc.” 

The 25-year-old Ngente, who also runs a small fabric shipping business on the side, alerted her network of tailors and designers back home. “Each district has an in-charge, and a Whatsapp group to coordinate,” says Ngente, “Tasks are divided — if one group is cutting the cloth, the other group is stitching. The Local Task Force connects these groups by carrying out deliveries.” 

A tailor volunteer from Lunge district wearing a mask she stitched. Express photo

Made up of members of the Young Mizo Association (one of the most powerful NGOs in the state) government employees, members of the church, the Local Task Force has been constituted to specifically for COVID-19. Functioning at the locality level in the state, it carries out a host of activities: from delivering medicines and groceries to making loud-speaker announcements, or tlangau — a daily tradition in Mizoram to keep the public updated, even in pre-coronavirus times.

Where do the products go?

After they are done, the Local Task Force delivers the products to doctors in hospitals to see if they are up to the mark. Once disinfected, they are dispatched to various places. While in various parts of Mizoram, policemen have started sporting trendy masks, the first proper order will go to the Vairengte check-gate on the Assam-Mizoram border soon.

A policeman wearing the mask stitched by the tailors. Express photo

Dr Doris Zami, of the Synod Hospital, who is guiding the tailors says, “We are trying to guide them the best we can on Whatsapp: what material they should use, how many layers a mask should have, how there should not be any holes in the seams.” While the ready-made ones, supplied to the government, go to the main frontline workers, these ones go to the LTF, police, nurses who are working in district hospitals and village sub-centers. “However, some institutes like the Women's Polytechnic are separately making PPE gowns, according to the procedure,” says Dr Zorengpuii, who practises at the Zoram Medical College.

The volunteers have also branched out into making hand sanitisers as per World Health Organisation guidelines. “Raw materials were expensive but now we have donations pouring in,” says Ngente.

“PPE Volunteer Committees” have formed across districts in Mizoram to make masks, boots, scrubs, disposal gowns etc.

A Communitarian Society

Ever since the lockdown began in Mizoram, a little earlier than the rest of the country, Mizo social media has been filled with posts about “anonymous” bags of rice found in street corners, landlords exempting tenants from paying rent, and massive donation drives. 

Margaret Zama, a professor of English from the Mizoram University, describes the Mizos as a “communitarian society”. “It runs much deeper than voluntarism. It is ingrained, and you feel a sense of duty,” she says. 

At JT Fashion House, the women agree. “We have taken the permission of the District Magistrate and we are planning to spend the lockdown here in the shop,” says one. “Enough cloth here to make some comfortable beds too,” jokes another.