Scuba diving respirators, shipping container hospital rooms … Stories are now pouring in about inventions of necessity in this pandemic, as healthcare workers struggle to make do with limited supplies at the frontline and search for creative solutions to save their patients. In our project we have been fascinated by the material adaptations and improvisations of teachers and students in medicine, part of a long lineage of tinkering with medical tools (think of the stethoscope whittled away in Laennec’s woodshed). In this post we look at a few creations being prototyped and rapidly spreading in healthcare settings around the world during this novel coronavirus pandemic.
Face Masks and Respirators
The N95 respirator mask has become one of the most important medical devices of this time. Fast Company has written an excellent history of the object which filters particles, telling about its origins during another disease outbreak. Today we are seeing fast developments in improvised respirator design, such as the use of snorkelling masks in northern Italy and worldwide. Many others are making their own masks, one of my favourite designs the Olson Mask (I made a few below), an initiative “powered by” Maker Health who has been driving great making activities in hospitals for some years now.
Shipping container hospital rooms
Also in Italy, architects have designed shipping containers that connect to each other to form an intensive care unit. With extractors to create negative air pressure, these units are designed to be transported anywhere and usable within a few hours, meaning that they can travel to where they are most needed. The architects have made their design open-source.
Such open-source on-the-ground innovations will also be met with resistance and competition from commercial industries. As Vincanne Adams writes in her astute and critical commentary on disaster capitalism surrounding the pandemic in Somatosphere: “grassroots efforts to make hospital masks with 3D printers are threatened with patent infringement lawsuits, and Amazon entrepreneurs who hoarded toilet paper and hand sanitizer are allowed to gouge prices without being hauled off to jail.” This pandemic, like others before it, is having unequal effects reiterating global and other inequalities. There is hope in these open-source and shared innovations attempting to address healthcare resource shortages, often using local materials, but also threats to their possibilities too.
Image from Banej CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0).