During the pandemic that has hurt most the vulnerable pockets of the population, we need solutions that cater to scale and affordability, says Miniya Chatterji, as she shares the first hand experience of the work being carried out by her and her team in the battle against Covid-19. Chatterji has developed a PPE model where builders are incentivised to collaborate and offer their vacant buildings for Covid-19 recovery facilities
It was business as usual in Paris. The cafes were crowded. Pavements busy with hurrying office goers and students. The manicured parks filled with more adults than children. Long queues at bakeries. Joggers out in the winter sun as much as in the gyms and health clubs. Subway trains packed. The shops luring in customers to the last discounts of the winter sale. Only the media was abuzz with around 800 new COVID cases being discovered in France every day.
So much so that the Indian government announced that the country would close its borders to any foreign national entering from France. My family and I had to scramble to get our air tickets for the very next day to leave Paris where we live three months every year to return to our home in Goa — my husband and toddler son are New Zealand citizens.
It was March 13, 2020 when we landed at Delhi international airport, where COVID related messages to socially distance were blasting on loudspeakers and all passengers had to undergo thermal tests. At that time India had 74 cases in total.
India has about 12 million children on the streets. Migrant workers often live in overcrowded temporary rooms in our cities. India is home to about one-third of the global slum population, with an average of one in six city residents living in slum zones where population densities vary between 277,136 persons per square kilometre (sq km) in Dharavi to 125,000 persons per sq km at the Rasolpoora slum in Hyderabad. In fact, in Dharavi, there is one toilet per 1,440 residents. How are they expected to ‘socially distance’ themselves?
Yet in India, that was our best bet and worth a try because with our size of population and low healthcare facility, we clearly have our own unique challenges to beat the Coronavirus. Testing is expensive and if the number of cases increase at the pace it did in Italy and France, then India would not have adequate numbers of beds to treat patients.
It was for this reason that on April 2, at the time that India had about 2,543 cases of COVID-19, that my team at Anant National University submitted a detailed proposal to the Prime Minister’s Office about how to transform vacant community halls, marriage halls, office spaces, and residential buildings into temporary hospitals and quarantine facilities for COVID-19 patients in an effective yet highly affordable way.
I set up the Anant Centre for Sustainability as a think-teach-do tank about two years ago, and since the past 10 months the team there had been collecting primary data at a city level to unravel the reasons why 7.5% homes in India are vacant as well as what we could do with them to close the housing gap in the country. In our proposal to the PMO, we included intricate details about the vacant spaces that were suited for specific COVID-19 conditions, room layouts, list of equipment required, costs, vendors, as well as a financing structure that did not require the government to pay for the costs to set up COVID-19 recovery facilities in vacant buildings.
Yet wondering if we would ever even hear back from the Prime Minister, I also reached out to friends who I thought might help us implement our proposal. Anil Antony, who is national coordinator of the Parliamentarians for Innovators of India, a multi-party parliamentarian organisation to which I too serve as a mentor, readily connected me to the Kerala state government. Milind Deora, former Minister of State, immediately connected me to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).
Before the end of the week, I did hear back from the Ministry of Commerce who requested immediate assistance for creating new categories on GeM, GOI’s e-market for government projects, for building COVID-19 recovery facilities as we had proposed to the PMO. Indeed, AnantU was registered on GeM as well. But by that time we already had two spaces in Thiruvanantharapuram and in South Mumbai that were ready to be converted in to a 20 bed temporary hospital for moderate cases of COVID-19 patients and a 100 bed quarantine facility for mild cases, designed, implemented, and funded by AnantU.
Within the same fortnight we had transformed three more facilities totalling 700 beds in Mumbai in to quarantine facilities, at one tenth of the cost of traditional quarantine centres. Milind Deora generously arranged for CSR funds from Godrej. Dhaval Monani, Director of Affordable Housing at AnantU came up with an incredibly ingenious design of making hospital furniture out of laminated corrugated cardboard that were durable, water proof, priced at 10% of the cost of a steel bed. The equipment is at manufacturing cost and the cheapest in the market, while mine and the university team’s efforts are at zero cost and completely on a voluntary basis. Due to the relentless efforts of Professor Monani and the team, within three days we built up the capacity of manufacturing 2,500 beds, tables, room separators every week, and transporting them to any place in India. Now every week we are setting up about two new facilities across India.
This extraordinary pace of scale of an innovative solution during a nationwide lockdown will probably make it to the bunch of stories I would tell my grandchildren one day. For now, I am convinced that it has been made possible only because of a government-university-private sector partnership which came with it’s share of challenges that essentially pointed to the lack of habitude for this.
For instance, is each entity a partner or a vendor? When the government-university-private sector come together as partners, each entity is contributing in money or in kind. This is very different from a transactional approach where the funder is the owner and the provider of goods is seeking a profit. Another example is the ability for the three entities to tango, given that each would have their unique interests and concerns. And finally, the role of universities anywhere in the world is to further knowledge, with no bias and without seeking profit. The understanding of this is still at a nascent stage and must be mainstreamed in our country. At a time when some individuals and organisations (even while declaring to be non profit) might be trying to make a buck out of the desperation that this crisis creates, the advantage of partnering with good universities is that its mandate is only to push new thinking and research instead of profiteering. Overcoming these minor hiccups in government-university-private sector endeavours will only lead to greater innovation and accelerated implementation, besides attracting the best talent of the country to teach and implement research driven projects within universities.
During the pandemic that has hurt most the vulnerable pockets of the population, we need solutions that cater to scale and affordability. For instance another innovation we are bringing to market this week is a mobile testing facility fitted within the humble autorickshaw — once again offered by a university and therefore at only the exact cost of the materials needed to manufacture it. We are putting mobile x-ray and swab collection centres upon an autorickshaw platform using insulated tarpaulins. It dramatically brings down the cost of testing while bringing the opportunity to test at the doorstep of residents living even in overcrowded zones.
In the wake of the relaxation in the lockdown in India, we must be prepared to live with the virus for an extended amount of time. Being prepared will help India avoid the path that France initially took with their ‘business as usual’ aporoach. Unless there is a vaccine, the virus is not going away. The rate of spread might flatten at some point and then spike again. No amount of modelling and simulations can predict the course of this. While those who have shelter and livelihoods during this crisis, can afford to physically distance (more apt than ‘social distance’!) from others, we need to tap in to frugal innovations to scale up solutions for those who need to choose between hunger and the virus.
Dr. Miniya Chatterji is CEO of Sustain Labs and Adjunct Professor at SciencesPo Paris. She is also a columnist and author of the 2019 bestseller Indian Instincts — essays on freedom and equality in India