«Why shouldn’t we do the simple things on our own? Especially during a crisis»

Jõgeva-based large furniture manufacturer Softcom.

PHOTO: Margus Ansu

Approximately a hundred larger and smaller enterprises are willing to contribute to the production of personal protective gear – masks and suits – which are in great demand during the crisis. But their good intentions tend to get tangled up in red tape.

There is a serious shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). The regular supply chains do not work. When the Health Board announced the week before last that it expects the support of local enterprises, Estonia’s firms responded quickly.

Timo Ryysy, the head of the large sewing company Ruston Invest, which has been operating in Estonia for years, remarks that his firm was willing to help the state just like many other local enterprises. “I have been busy dealing with it during all these recent days, seeking for opportunities to be useful.”

Marko Ala, the founder of the furniture design company Oot-Oot says that he contacted Priit Pettai, head of his partner factory, the Jõgeva-based large furniture manufacturer Softcom, as soon as he saw the appeal, so as to develop an action plan. They quickly drafted the cuts of a protective suit and made a prototype. They were basically ready to launch production as soon as the Health Board gave the order.

“I understand that if the Health Board appeals to enterprises, the situation must be very serious,” the head of Softcom Pettai says. “This is not a project for making profit. We all want to get rid of that shit (the coronavirus) as soon as possible.”

The designers, sewing and textile forms and other creative industry members compiled a list of producers – altogether some 60 firms with the ability and readiness to produce protective equipment – and sent their joint offer to the ministries and institutions.

“Our goal was initially to map the preparedness and capability. The picture is quite mixed. There are large enterprises with already certified production and waiting for the officials to handle the paperwork at an accelerated rate so that they could help. There are sewing firms and companies which do not sew themselves but have contacts in other countries for supplying materials. Obviously we have to determine, which ones could make simple protective masks and which ones can produce specific protective suits,” says Evelin Ojamets, the spokeswoman of the initiative.

Protective suit from a furniture maker

The furniture manufacturer Pettai explains that he learned about the critical shortage of protective suits when his supplier of simple protective overalls announced that the suits are sold out and he cannot tell when the next batch might arrive. “It appeared that the most basic disposable overalls are in high demand,” he said.

Yet the fabric used in the basic overalls is exactly the same which is used in fur nature manufacturing. “I thought that if the situation is that bad, why not make them on our own,” the manager said.

He contacted three or four warehouses about the availability of the suitable fabric, the existing stocks and chances of obtaining more material. The situation was not too good. However, as of last week there was enough material in Estonia for roughly 40,000 protective suits.

Pettai also asked his international partners about the opportunity to purchase medical fabric for the production of real protective suits. “It was still possible in Monday. But by Tuesday the local enterprises had been ordered not to sell out any more. This means that this material is in high demand,” Pettai concluded.

Thus they concentrated on the basic suits.

The largest advantage of Softcom is its very large and powerful robotic cutter, which, according to Pettai, can cut enough details for 15,000 – 20.000 overalls within 24 hours.

“My greatest wish was that the Health Board would quickly approve the cuts and material – we sent them all the information. We could cut the details out of the material available in Estonia within three days. We could sew part of them together here, but our sewing capacity is limited. We would have handed over most of the materials to other enterprises,” he says. “It is clear that if all these hundred firms – with some having two workers and others several dozen – will cut details out by hand and make their own models, it would not be practical or effective.”

 But Pettai was still confused last Thursday since he had not yet received approval from the Health Board whether their protective suit model is acceptable and what to do next.

“One has to decide and act in a crisis situation. I stress that the amount of the fabric for these basic suits will decline every day.”

The sewing firm manager Ryysy describes how he contacted a Lithuanian partner at the beginning of the crisis. “They are already producing 5,000 masks per day. They have the capacity and the material as well. We should just let them know. But our consumer protection board said that the material used by the Lithuanians does not meet standards. And the Lithuanian issue had to be dropped,” he says.

Raising the hands up

The situation seemed to clear somewhat last Thursday afternoon. Evelin Ojamets who represents the entrepreneurs concluded a phone call with the Health Board in a fine mood of cooperation – the official requirements for medical face masks and regular masks are finally available.

“Let us say first that the instructions only concern the masks, there is nothing about the protective suits so far;” the furniture maker Pettai says and adds that the Health Board letter curbed his enthusiasm. “When they made the appeal and called for the entrepreneurs to help and announce their willingness, we did so. Now we hear that they want some certificates we should obtain by ourselves. Look here, friends, I am a furniture maker. I have no competence or staff to handle that kind of certificates,” Pettai says. This is the stage where I raise up my hands. I shall not run that gauntlet. Honestly, I have to keep my enterprise alive as the economy freezes up. I saw an opportunity to help the state but I have really no time to deal with red tape;” he says.

Ojamets knows that some firms have obtained through their European partners materials with protective equipment certificates. Some companies have completed a first prototype batch. “And now, really, we run into another problem. According to the Health Board standards the batch must undergo tests. But Estonia has no such facility. There are in Europe but it would be relatively difficult for an Estonia producer to get there in the present situation,” Ojamets says.

Timo Ryysy agrees that the protective equipment must meet certain standards.

“One obviously cannot use a random rag to protect against the virus. But the question is what they actually expect from us. It tends to look like every enterprise doing its own product separately. That will get us nowhere! There are enough interested producers, but it now is high time to decide: this is the product, the material comes from that source and we shall do this,” he says.

Ojamets admits that the crisis management is somewhat scattered.

Pettai the furniture maker agrees.

“They ask for help, but cannot do anything with it. The state should have mapped the firms offering help and their capabilities. The state should coordinate the process so that the suitable enterprises would easily get the certificates, permits and materials … and the work would begin,” he speculates. “But now… I predict that quite a number of entrepreneurs will give up.”