“People across three continents, strangers who have never met, came together to build trust and save lives,” says Vinay Kumar, who works at IISc, Bengaluru.

A man standing with cardboard boxes containing oxygen concentratorsPhoto: Vinay Kumar
Coronavirus COVID-19 Monday, June 07, 2021 - 15:18

Just a little over a month ago, India was grappling with the peak of the second wave of COVID-19, the situation made worse by the paucity of hospital beds, medical oxygen and oxygen cylinders. Vinay Kumar, a Bengaluru-based patent consultant at ARTPARK in the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bengaluru, remembers feeling frustrated and helpless at the devastation around him. “Despite knowing the data and how COVID-19 progresses, we never really prepared. It was so hurtful to see the work of reputed scientists being disregarded, and seeing pseudo-science being propagated by some officials,” he tells TNM.

So, Vinay decided to do something about it. What started with just conversations has now resulted in him and some of his friends procuring 115 oxygen concentrators from Germany and supplying the machines to five states — Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. “People across three continents, strangers who have never met, came together to build trust and save lives. The whole operation cost over 120,000 euros. We have never dealt with such money in our lives, but it was made possible by people’s goodwill and desire to help,” Vinay shares.

Vinay, like many others, was getting several calls for help at the peak of the second wave, and lost many relatives and family friends to COVID-19 too. He realised that oxygen concentrators could save lives. That’s when he reached out to his friends in Germany — Monja and Franziska – who work with Technology Without Borders (‘Technik ohne Grenzen’ in German), a company that works for marginalised populations in many countries. “We started a fundraiser in Germany with a modest target of 10,000 euros initially. But I wanted to get at least 100 oxygen concentrators to India and that amount would not have covered it,” says Vinay. Vinay got acquainted with Monja and Franziska in December 2020 when the German duo wanted to work on an agricultural project in Madanapalle in Andhra Pradesh, which did not ultimately happen.

So, Vinay started searching for potential donors — trawling LinkedIn, finding his friends and colleagues, getting certain companies to match the total amount donated by its employees. Through social media, the fundraiser became quite popular, garnering the interest of two NGOs in Bengaluru and one in Hyderabad. The NGOs asked for their contacts in Germany to contribute to the German fundraiser, and offered help with distribution once the concentrators arrived in India. In the meantime, DHL also offered its services to provide free shipping for the machines from Germany to India.

“But it was tough to find oxygen concentrators,” Vinay narrates. “Many companies were sold out and the supply of others had been reserved by other parties already.” That’s when Monja reached out to Marvin Zierau, product manager, medical, at Gase Partner GmbH, which deals in medical oxygen. Vinay said that though Marvin’s company didn’t deal in oxygen concentrators, Marvin agreed to help them procure the machines.

As the fundraiser’s popularity grew on social media, the efforts also got support from an alumni group of Bangalore Medical College alumni in the US, who agreed to fund 50 oxygen concentrators. Ultimately, with everyone’s efforts and donations pouring in, the group was able to fund 115 oxygen concentrators, 1,000 pulse oximeters and 5,000 N95 masks. “I think in those days, none of us slept more than three hours a day for two weeks. All of us had regular day jobs, and coordinated this over three time zones of India, Germany and the US,” Vinay says.

On May 18, the oxygen concentrators finally arrived in Bengaluru. Vinay says that due to the FCRA regulations making it difficult for Indian NGOs to get foreign funding, Technology Without Borders bought all the oxygen concentrators from various sources, and sent them to Project Smile in Bengaluru. "Project Smile Trust volunteers have worked many a sleepless night at the warehouse to distribute the concentrators across the states," Vinay notes. He had also been speaking to other NGOs for distribution of the concentrators, including Mercy Mission in Bengaluru.

“By this time, the situation had gotten slightly better in Bengaluru. So, oxygen concentrators here were deployed in four BBMP zones, mostly in Primary Health Centres (PHCs). Through connections on Twitter, we were able to send concentrators outside Karnataka too… we have sent these to Valparai in Tamil Nadu, Yawatmal in Maharashtra and Madanapalle in Andhra, to name a few places. We sent oximeters and masks to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar too,” Vinay says.

Vinay adds that they now have 30 to 40 concentrators (in addition to the 115) for which they have already gotten requests. “We are now thinking of shifting our focus to amphotericin injections (used to treat black fungus infection) because the supply is low and mucormycosis cases are increasing. Each injection costs around Rs 7,500 and a person needs 20 to 30 vials. The same fundraiser will be used for this,” he adds.

He also warns that we should not be letting our guard down. “The plateau in COVID-19 cases is there because of the lockdown. Vaccination numbers are still not optimal. Unless vaccination improves drastically, we will see another spike. We must prepare for the future and support people who have lost their livelihoods due to COVID-19,” Vinay says. You can visit the fundraising page here.