How NGOs have silently helped Indians combat the COVID-19 pandemic

NGOs across India have played a huge role in strengthening the country’s health infrastructure, from setting up oxygen plants to providing medical and diagnostic equipment.
Healthcare workers in hospital wearing PPE kit
Healthcare workers in hospital wearing PPE kit
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The world hasn’t been the same since March 2020. We have all been impacted in some way or the other. COVID-19 impacted not just the health and well-being of millions but caused huge loss of lives, livelihood and productive assets. The distress in the economy — wages, jobs, production, investments and consumption — was too noticeable to be dismissed.

COVID-19 exposed some of the serious institutional infirmities in our health system due to the low spending at 1.2% of the GDP on health. During the peak of the COVID-19 second wave, we were all riled by the inability (either directly or indirectly) to meet the needs of medical-grade oxygen supplies, life-saving medical and diagnostic equipment, hospital beds and personal protective gear. In May this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi invoked NGOs to play a role in strengthening the healthcare sector amid a surge in cases during the second wave. And the NGOs across India stepped up, yet again.

NGOs across India — the larger ones such as Action Aid, Save The Children, Oxfam India, America India Foundation, SaveLIFE Foundation, Caritas, World Vision— played a huge role in strengthening the healthcare infrastructure. Whether it was setting up oxygen plants or providing medical and diagnostic equipment, I have witnessed from close quarters how NGOs have focused on Primary Health Centres (PHC) and Community Health Centres (CHC) to make sure that we face up the huge challenge of second wave but also be better prepared for a potential third wave.

We launched Mission Sanjeevani — our COVID-19 Response 2.0 — soon after the second wave started. These were testing times yet NGOs both the national and grassroots partners went about fund-raising, setting up numerous Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA) Oxygen plants — we have set up two, and have plans to set up another eight — providing for thousands of jumbo oxygen cylinders, oxygen Concentrators, ventilators, BiPAP (Bilevel Positive Airway Pressure) machines, multi-parameter monitors, oximeters, PPE kits, hospital beds, testing kits among scores of other items. NGOs raised millions to make the public healthcare system strong. The NGOs were ingenious in mobilising planeloads of in-kind material from abroad.

The poor state of rural healthcare in India is much talked about. We do also know that our frontline workers like ASHA, ANM and Anganwadi workers were ill-equipped to protect themselves and others in the local community, yet went about their work, in some places even without wages. 

Our Mission Sanjeevani, in addition to providing large quantities of hospital equipment and supplies, engaged with ASHAs have been brought into sharp focus. In eight states, over 60,000 ASHAs are being provided training and a kit containing critical items like thermal gun, oximeter, apron, masks, gloves, sanitiser, liquid soap and an information booklet. Such initiatives are important in recognising the sheet anchor role that frontline health workers are playing and will continue to play in a pandemic situation. Similar efforts are being made by hundreds of NGOs across all parts of India. Importantly, all these efforts have been done in close partnership with governments.

With the vaccines came its fair share of vaccine hesitancy. The Empowered Committee led by NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant sought active support from the NGOs earlier this year. NGOs with their grassroots presence played, and continue to play, a major role in busting the myths and misconceptions around the pandemic and vaccines using a mix of digital and traditional modes of communication to impart correct and science-based information on COVID19 prevention, care and treatment.

Since last year the Prime Minister on various occasions has sought help from NGOs to address the migrant issue and later the healthcare sector shortage. Last year, from the time we witnessed lakhs of migrant workers undertake long and tortuous travel on foot after the lockdown, NGOs swung into action to provide dry ration, cooked meal and drinking water on highways across the country. We played a crucial role from hunger mitigation to livelihood restoration.

But the most crucial aspect is that its smaller grassroots organisations were on the field braving an unknown virus and an unprecedented health emergency that turned into a humanitarian crisis. We were rendered immobile due to the lockdown. There were several grassroots organisations across the country who helped in the last mile delivery of food kits and safety kits. It would have been impossible for a lot of the bigger, so called national NGOs, to reach millions of migrants as well as stranded communities with food, safety kits, cooked meals, across India.

The worst is still not behind us. India’s geo-climatic conditions make it one of the most vulnerable places on earth in terms of increased frequency in natural disasters. The climate change-induced extreme weather events are continuously aggravating the vulnerability of the already marginalised communities. We have reached extremely worrying levels of economic losses and loss of human lives due to natural disasters. COVID-19, over the last 18 months, has made it worse for the poor, marginalised and underserved communities across India.

Nor will the role of NGOs in India diminish in the post-Covid world if one goes by the Global Climate Risk Index, 2020 which ranks India as the fifth most vulnerable country globally. Today, more than ever, Indian NGOs will have to be prepared for playing a bigger role in future emergencies. It is time to comprehensively consider ‘ease of doing business’ for the social sector.

Pankaj Anand is the Director, Programmes and Advocacy, Oxfam India.

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