As Cameroonians face the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, they are faced with the economic hardships, including the high price of face masks, considered the most visible barrier to the coronavirus.
When the pandemic arrived Cameroon in March, face masks were sold in local markets at 100 FCFA (20 cents). Shortly after government announced the first anti-coronavirus measures, one of which was the obligatory wearing of face masks, the price of the commodity began a steep rise to 500 FCFA (one dollar).
Cameroon’s leading fabric manufacturer, CICAM (Cotonniere Industrielle du Cameroun) has sparked off a controversy which is in turn further deepening the already deep anti-French sentiments in the country.
In effect, the French-owned CICAM seems to be trying to manouevre its way into being declared the lone manufacturer of face masks which are alleged to meet the required medical standards.
“If they were to manufacture and submit their masks to the normal market trends dictated by consumers, Cameroonians would not complain. But what they are trying to do is to bribe their way into monopolizing the face mask market and imposing a grossly exaggerated price on local consumers,” Ernestine Simo, a seamstress in Douala Central Market, complained.
CICAM claims its masks are the only ones currently in the market that meet the standards dictated by medical professionals. And so they sell their face masks at 1,300 FCFA (2.5 dollars) as against 300 to 500 FCFA for those marketed by individual producers. They claim their masks are anti- COVID-19, which is raising many questions as to what anti- COVID-19 tissues are made of.
The company claims it produces between 5,000 and 9,000 face masks daily and can produce about 270,000 masks monthly. It also says only it can mass produce face masks to meet the great national demand but its capacity is a far cry from the national demand of 15 million masks.
“CICAM claims the price of their face mask is high because they do not receive any state subvention to produce them. That is a preposterous reason to give for such sky high prices because all other local producers, especially the seamstresses and tailors in our markets and neighbourhoods also do not receive state subventions,” a tailor in Douala Mboppi Market declared angrily.
The most annoying aspect of the under-the-table machinations between government agents and CICAM is that they want to impose their very expensive face masks on schools so that parents pay obligatorily for them for their children.
“This is unacceptable. There is no way I will pay 1,300 FCFA for a face mask for my child whereas I can obtain the same quality face mask for 300 FCFA in the local market.
“They claim their masks meet medical standards but they are yet to prove to us what ‘medical components’ their tissues have that those used by our seamstresses and tailors, most of which are manufactured by them, don’t have,” a parent in Limbe said.
“The other day I overheard one government school administrator declare on television that face masks to be supplied by CICAM to various schools would be subsidised at 300 FCFA so parents would only pay 1,000 FCFA for them.
“That is their voodoo calculation which we cannot accept. The smell of corruption is very aparent in such an ungodly arrangement.
“France has exploited us enough over several decades and we cannot allow them to continue stealing from us with the connivance of our officialdom,” Ayuk-ndem Besong-arah, another parent told HumAngle in Yaounde.
In a related development, the Cameroonian government on May 18, 2020, signed a convention with the French Development Agency by which the French government is granting a subvention of 6.5 billion FCFA (13 million dollars) to Cameroon.
The money to be used to support the budget of the Ministry of Public Health would be used in the fight against the coronavirus. It would help reinforce the assistance given to COVID-19 patients, especially the serious cases currently in the Bafoussam, Douala and Yaounde reference hospitals.
It will also be used in acquiring more hospital beds and reanimation equipment, intensify the search for those who came in contact with positive cases and to reinforce the rapid investigation and intervention teams of the Ministry of Public Health as well massively procure individual protection equipment for health personnel.