On making PPE with ‘good-humoured resolve’: Gabriel Lipkowitz

Gabriel Lipkowitz, a 2019-20 Fulbrighter to the UK, discusses his role as a volunteer making PPE.

Queen Elizabeth II, in her April 5th televised address to the United Kingdom, expressed her desire that as the pandemic struck the nation, “the attributes of self-discipline, of quiet, good-humoured resolve and of fellow-feeling still characterise this country.” For the past month, as an American studying at Imperial College London as a Fulbright scholar, I’ve been volunteering to assemble personal protective equipment for Imperial’s NHS Trust. In doing so, I’ve had the distinct pleasure of working with and getting to know a team of Brits and their international co-volunteers who, by exemplifying just those admirable characteristics, reinvigorated my own faith in humanity’s capacity for collective action.

The opportunity came from a bit of boredom. My experience of lockdown was no different, I’m sure, than that of millions of others: I’d ceased going to (real-world) university and lost (real-world) contact with students, professors, and friends. One bit of daily excitement I’d found was listening to the U.K. government’s daily press conferences every evening as I ate dinner. My initial reason for doing so—and no, it wasn’t the eloquence of Cabinet Ministers—was that their scientific advisors often discussed epidemiological models akin to those I’d been studying in my computational science course at Imperial. But what really grabbed my attention at this early stage in the crisis, as others who also follow these reports so religiously will recall, was another issue: personal protective equipment. Its shortage in the U.K. healthcare system was causing significant discomfort, and perhaps danger, for those doctors, nurses, and others working on the frontline. Voicing their concerns, journalists frequently set the pressing question to ministers of “Where’s the PPE?”, which in its constant repetition was starting to sound a bit like the Wendy’s fast food chain’s famous commercial, “Where’s the beef?”.

After about the twentieth time hearing the where’s-the-PPE question, I got word from Imperial about a new contract with its NHS Trust Charing Cross hospital to produce PPE at scale, specifically 50,000 face visors. They were looking for volunteers. As someone with stable housing, food, and (course)work, and of a demographic not particularly vulnerable to the virus, I reflected that I should probably do a bit more to help out in the crisis, at least beyond heeding the First World War parody billboards around London telling Britons that, “Your country needs you...to sit on your couch!”. In my own case, moreover, Imperial (along with the US-UK Fulbright Commission) had been funding me this year to not only study, but also engage in cross-cultural communication; even if social distancing may have hindered that objective, it need not preclude it entirely. And so, with the voice of the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg asking where’s-the-PPE resonating in my ears, I rushed to Imperial’s White City campus to sign up.

When I arrived, what first struck me was the space itself. The Imperial team had repurposed the existing floor, a veritable tabula rasa of 8,000 square feet of open space described fittingly by one of the building’s architects as intended to accommodate the unpredictable nature of research, as a de facto manufacturing facility. Even more impressive, though, was the feverish human activity that filled it.

In one corner, volunteers rapidly unpacked the basic materials that composed a visor: plastic shield, elastic band, foam headrest, staples and disinfectant. Elsewhere, others carefully inspected the plastic for scratches or dents, and then efficiently assembled the components into full visors. And in yet more areas, others thoroughly cleaned every visor and bagged it for transport to Charing Cross Hospital. One particularly admirable volunteer had been set the uplifting task of discarding literally hundreds of recently arrived, yet defective, visor parts. Making PPE was far from straightforward.

For my own part, I could only hope to emulate these volunteers’ professionalism and determination. The volunteer coordinator rapidly demonstrated to me the basics of making a visor. As expected, I botched my first few. But after the first hour, I’d become fluent enough in the process to be able to receive the work of one team member, efficiently complete mine, and pass it onto the next. At this point, an image came to mind from London’s Imperial War Museum I’d seen before the pandemic, of heroic British citizens on the home front in the Second World War producing munitions, aeroplane parts and other essential industrial supplies, hard at work together.

Indeed, I’ve heard others make the point that today, at the same time as we find ourselves physically cut off from each other like never before, this grave common threat has somewhat ironically strengthened our sense of community. My experience making PPE with this team of Brits and their international co-volunteers makes me agree; at my own socially distanced station, I’d never before felt more a part of a team. And more than that, the determination with which I saw this group of volunteers drive themselves towards a collective goal, amidst crisis, underscored to me that most powerful of human traits, too often forgotten in our age of hyper-individualism, self-celebration, and self-promotion, where emphasis is placed in social media on “me” and in identity politics on “I”. Namely, it’s our capacity to work collectively, subsuming our own personal wishes and aims to a larger project. One hopes, after this awful pandemic finally ends, we’ll learn to embrace such a spirit even further.