Haze Craze: The Hunt For Masks Reveals The Heart Of Community In Singapore – By Expat Andrea McKenna Brankin

Despite the fact that the haze has subsided recently, it doesn’t diminish the positive experience I had in sourcing N95 masks for my family.
30 September 2019


It’s been a few years since we’ve had to worry about recurring haze from forests being burned in Indonesia.

(What is the so-called “haze” exactly? Consult this handy article.)

When it returned in early September – and you could see and smell the smoky, ashy air outdoors, and it started to irritate people’s eyes, noses, throats and lungs – some panic set in: Did we need to consider getting N95 masks to protect ourselves from this air pollution? Was it safe for our kids to go outside, to go to school?

The Singapore government assured everyone there were enough masks for the situation, but many stores couldn’t keep them in stock when the haze was reaching its worst.

This was the week leading up to and the one after 18 September, when – according to the National Environment Agency (NEA)’s 24-hour Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) – the PSI officially reached the “unhealthy” range, or above 100.


That’s when I took a look at posts on Facebook as well as the mean streets of Katong, where I live, to see if people were wearing the masks yet.

I saw one family using hip Vogmasks, which come in various stylish colours and prints. These masks are actually used all over the world to protect people from pollution, wildfires, volcanoes, mold, dust, allergens, germs and shavings, among other irritants. According to the company’s website, “Its mission supports humanitarian relief and clean air awareness efforts around the world.” In other words, it’s an environmentally and socially conscious company.

At the time, of course, I ordered the one with the pink unicorns on it (see below). The problem was, I couldn’t find a small-sized one for my daughter, and I knew she’d want one with the unicorns. Sigh. I ordered a blue print one, as it was the only kid-sized one, as well as one size up for my helper. (I knew my husband wouldn’t wear a trendy-looking mask, so I didn’t order him one.)


Enter Challenge 1

I was so pleased with myself when I received my mask! I put it on and got ready to head out to my daughter’s after-school bus.

However, I walked only about 100 meters and got short of breath – and had to take it off to catch my breath in the haze-laden air. I was not happy about this, and – after picking up my daughter – returned the computer keyboard to register my complaint not only with the manufacturer, but also with the local distributor. How can I wear a filtering mask if I cannot breathe?

Interestingly, I received a response from both parties. Apparently, it takes a few days to optimize the mask. I surmised that means you have to a) break it in and b) get used to wearing it. Hmm. I had no intimation this would be an issue. I considered myself enlightened.

Also, I was pretty impressed by and thankful for the two companies’ speedy responses. They are probably inundated with orders and questions, and took the time to calm me down over email at 1 a.m. Chalk one up for humanity… and good customer service!

A New Worry

Given that I’m that kind of planner who needs a backup plan for my backup plan, it wasn’t long before I was panicked about not having backup masks for my family.

I was off and running midweek looking for masks for them as well as enough for the eight U.S. college students I look after who are attending Singapore Management University (SMU) this semester and the employees in my husband’s office. I hit a few stores friends had recommended. But, in every case, the masks were sold out by the time I got there.


Wary of taking any more suggestions on mask locations, I put out a plea on Facebook, asking friends in Singapore if I could buy masks off them. Specifically, I requested, if anyone saw the N95 masks to please buy them, and I’d pay them back with money, coffee, lunch or cupcakes.

I received tonnes of responses to help me!

One was a close condo neighbor whose daughter goes to school with mine. One was from a new friend I met at a recent brunch. One was from the American Association of Singapore; a few were AWA Singapore members. One was a nearby friend who I had never even met in person. This was the person I decided to take the offer from, as it was the fastest way to get the masks in my hands.

Things were Looking Up

I took advantage of the low haze that Friday morning and walked down the street about 20 minutes to her house. I brought a bottle of orange essential oil as a gift to say thanks for helping her help. I found the house, kicked off my shoes and came in to have a sparkling water on the couch with her and her 3 year old. I stayed about 20 minutes, chatting about the weather, the haze, F1 and mutual friends. Not only did I get the N95 masks I needed, I also made a new friend.

The biggest award for helping a sister out went to my neighbour and best mom buddy, who not only passed on an extra small-sized kids mask but called me on video chat from the Watsons at I12 Katong mall to ask me how many boxes I needed to cover my family, the SMU college kids and my husband’s colleagues.

The biggest takeaway? People are still willing to help people in need. When the “craze haze” subsided, as it has in the last week or so, I felt not only tremendous relief but also a reboot in my faith in humanity. Whether it was email customer service, a social media connection or in-real-life people, people came through.

Experiencing this burst of goodwill among the residents of Singapore, along with my N95 masks, I can now breathe easier.


About Andrea McKenna Brankin

Andrea McKenna Brankin is a journalist and author from the United States who lives a full life with bipolar disorder. Her book, Bipolar Phoenix, is awaiting a publishing contract. She is also currently a volunteer at the HCSA Dayspring Residential Treatment Centre for teen girls in Singapore, providing befriending-family support, therapeutic writing and rugby coaching.

You May Also Like