Refugees and scientists develop sustainable PPE to combat Covid-19

  • Refugees collaborate with researchers to produce reusable PPE for Zaatari camp and local population in Jordan
  • Masks, shields and gowns are made from locally available, low-cost materials that can be recycled
  • Initiative creates jobs, reduces plastic and keeps people safe

Woman cuts mask out of fabric

A group of artists and scientists has teamed up with the UNHCR and Syrian refugees to develop new hand hygiene products and design and produce reusable masks, shields and gowns to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 in Jordan.

The collaboration with refugees living in Zaatari camp has developed personal protective equipment (PPE) using locally available, low-cost materials that can be repurposed after the pandemic, creating training and employment opportunities at a new mask production facility, while keeping people safe and reducing plastic waste.

The project, The People’s PPE, led by academics at the University of Sheffield and London College of Fashion, University of the Arts London (UAL), with researchers from Al Albayt University and the University of Petra, has received £766,675 of government funding provided through UK Research and Innovation’s flagship Strength in Places Fund.

“This project is about empowering refugees in a moment of health crisis.”


In March 2020, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Jordan collaborated with Professor Tony Ryan (University of Sheffield) and Professor Helen Storey (London College of Fashion, UAL) to develop innovative solutions for PPE for the people of Zaatari, utilising digital printing and sewing capabilities at their UK universities as well as facilities in the camp. Amid the PPE shortages that marked the beginning of lockdown in the UK, the team used the University of Sheffield’s makerspace iForge to design and manufacture laser-cut and 3D-printed face shields. In both the UK and Jordan, the team collaborated with refugees to make prototypes of masks, shields and gowns.

The People’s PPE project will use collaborative and interdisciplinary ways of working to help inform how Zaatari in Jordan can respond to the evolving crisis. In collaboration with research partners Al Albayt University and the University of Petra, the team will investigate how the availability of PPE affects people’s attitudes and behaviours around risk, in order to address health threats. Digital technologies will expand the reach of the work, which will also address broader questions around the effects of PPE uptake on people’s sense of agency, ability and willingness to play a role in preventing and treating Covid-19.

There are currently 660,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan, where the government has done extraordinarily well in suppressing transmission of the virus, recording 11 deaths from 1,100 cases.

However, as lockdown measures are eased, the UNHCR is preparing for a dramatic increase in Covid-19 transmission, and there is a pressing need for supplies of PPE compliant with Jordanian standards. With limited buying power, neither the Jordanian government nor UNHCR, who manage the camp, are well-placed to compete globally for supplies.

The People’s PPE will provide opportunities for people in Zaatari to become more financially independent and self-reliant especially in light of decreasing global aid budgets. It will also develop new products for hand hygiene in collaboration with Givaudan – the world’s largest purveyor of flavour and fragrance.

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