Health and Healthcare Systems

Here's how one social entrepreneur became a first responder to the Indian COVID crisis

A nurse checks a coronavirus disease patient's pulse before she is admitted into a school turned COVID-19 care facility on the outskirts of Mumbai, India, May 24, 2021. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas - RC25MN9WTO0L

"Radical collaboration". Image: REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

Chetna Vijay Sinha
Founder, Mann Deshi Foundation, India
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Agenda in Focus: Social Entrepreneurs

  • Social purpose organization, Mann Deshi, is using its position on the frontlines of the pandemic to deliver critical COVID-19 relief.
  • It also provides interest-free loans to businesswomen affected by COVID and runs online business training courses to ensure access and opportunities.
  • The organization is strongly placed to assist because it is embedded in the local rural community and therefore engenders trust, and because it draws private funding alongside public sector backing.

“In rural Manharashtra, India we have a local saying that the sky has burst – we are trying to fix it with small pieces – it’s a bad situation”, says Chetna Sinha, Founder-Chairperson of Mann Deshi Bank and the Mann Deshi Foundation.

“India is experiencing the worst of times in its second wave of COVID-19. In our district alone, 2,000 people test positive every day.” And the Foundation, which she established 25 years ago, is doing its best to keep pace. “With the second wave, what we’ve found is the flow to the hospitals is so fast – young people are being affected really badly, everybody is needing oxygen. Funders are saying they can give us money, but we just need oxygen. It’s impossible!”

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Social purpose organizations provide frontline relief

Mann Deshi normally works to support and empower rural women to access finance, develop skills and identify markets. It is now using its position as a social purpose organization on the frontlines of the pandemic to deliver critical COVID-19 relief across the district. The team is working with the health system around the clock to provide oxygen beds, ventilators, and appropriate medicines to critical-stage patients.

Successfully transitioning focus in the face of such uncertainty requires significant agility.

“When the pandemic first hit, we were involved mostly in immediate food and medical relief for thousands of people in Satara district,” remembers Sinha. “It was all about prevention.” They used radio to communicate with over 200,000 households in that time, and digitally trained women to make 1.5 million masks. “We are 7 hours from Mumbai. Once we get COVID we do not have the health facilities. We prepared ourselves.”

Rural COVID-19 cases surge in Maharashtra
Rural COVID-19 cases surge in Maharashtra Image: Reuters

A year on they have been working tirelessly - from providing 20,000 food packages to families, 25,000 meals to migrant workers, and distributing 5,000 masks and PPE kits to building a 300-bed COVID hospital with all the latest medical facilities in partnership with the district government and HSBC. They have also refurbished an unused rural hospital in a remote part of the state, turning it into a free COVID-dedicated facility. In the past six months, thousands have benefitted from both.

Partnering on lives and livelihoods

They also provided interest-free loans to businesswomen whose businesses have been affected by COVID and digitalized all training so that women can access business education.

Support came from HSBC, IndusInd Bank, and Cipla, while Credit Suisse and Accenture, enabled Mann Deshi to redirect funding to the COVID-19 cause. Partnership has been crucial in response to this crisis, with the government joining in to provide equipment, instalment processes and logistics.

They made significant progress, but the speed and severity of infection has, as everywhere in India, pushed them beyond all limits. This remote location now has over 100,000 COVID-positive patients. Tests are running low countrywide and there is a massive shortage of oxygen, in part due to transport and supply chain issues.

Testing and the vaccine programme have continued in the face of the crisis. Sinha explains how they “very calmly” focus on the variables that they can control, such as getting food to patients, closely monitoring chest x-rays with a single machine, and securing much needed medicines from donors.

“We are constantly working to support the healthcare system. Even my son Prabhat is spending all his time at the moment finding critical medicines, beds and oxygen.”

Social entrepreneurs are often embedded in their communities and highly trusted.

Trust builders: Embedded in communities

As people die and families suffer, social entrepreneurs like Sinha and her team are doing critical work as first-responders in underserved areas of the country. One of the reasons they are strongly placed to assist is because they are embedded in the community. Mann Deshi has been part of the fabric of the district for close on 30 years making it a trusted resource – so much so that Sinha was asked to be one of the first to publicly receive the vaccine in order to encourage others to do the same.

A strong network is invaluable. Sinha says she is grateful that she is in touch with the financial sector and the corporate world, and that she has an astute sense of the political milieu. “In a very real way this is showcasing the impossibility of fighting this kind of battle without radical collaboration.”

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And they are not done yet. “From today we have started with a medical fund so people who can’t afford to go to hospital can go and are working to provide food for 200 people a day, which we expect to growth. We are also seeking funds for an ambulance to transport people to medical facilities.”

For Sinha doing what they can is an imperative that goes beyond mere philanthropy: “It is about I am part of you – it is not doing something for them – it’s for all of us.”

The Mann Deshi Foundation has a critical need for medicines, beds and oxygen; to get a Cryogenic Oxygen Tanker for a period of at least one month to the Satara district collector in the state of Maharashtra for the transport of liquid oxygen. The Foundation is also seeking funds for an ambulance.

This is part of a series of articles published by the World Economic Forum’s COVID Response Alliance for Social Entrepreneurs on the Indian response to the COVID-19 second wave. The Alliance is hosted by the Schwab Foundation and includes 86 leaders in social entrepreneurship, who collectively support an estimated 100,000 entrepreneurs.

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