ActionAid Association- A hope for those in need during the Pandemic

ActionAid Association is an organisation working for social and ecological justice. ActionAid Association has been engaged with the most marginalised communities in India since 1972.  Bringing together supporters, communities, institutions and governments, ActionAid Association strives to further equality, fraternity and liberty for all.

ActionAid Association works in 24 states and two union territories, with several partners and allied organisations. ActionAid Association is part of a global federation and a full affiliate of ActionAid International that has presence in over 40 countries worldwide. interviewed ActionAid Association’s Executive Director, Sandeep Chachra and Associate Director, Tanveer Kazi (in charge of Goa initiatives among others) on their noble acts and initiatives taken during the Pandemic. Being an NGO, how did you deal with the second wave of Covid-19?

 ActionAid Association: We have been active in our COVID response since the first wave. We reached out to vulnerable communities, especially workers who were returning to their native places. We provided ration, food, sanitization kits and medication to more than 77 lakh workers across the nation.

During the second wave of COVID in the first week of April 2021, we set up helplines  nationally, in states and in districts. Helplines helped people to get the beds, medical support, oxygen concentrators and links with doctors and caregivers etc. We also set up 71 health desks across the districts where around 46,000 volunteers along with 400 staff including colleagues could help citizens with time specific information such as availability of beds, oxygen cylinders etc, as well as to undertake awareness drives on COVID Appropriate Behaviour and need for Vaccination.

 We made ambulance services both nationally and at the state level where we made national doctors’ helplines available. We helped people with medicines who were home isolated.

 We also set up community kitchens where we served cooked meals to COVID patients at their homes as well as migrant workers.

 During the second week of May, we set up an oxygen plant in Noida, Delhi NCR and are now setting up 7 more plants across India by the end of July 2021. We have been supporting many COVID care facilities and hospitals by supplying oxygen concentrators. Starting the second week of May, we undertook a major project of providing around 7,000 oxygen concentrators to primary and community health care centres across about 200 districts of the country.

 Our teams have provided support to district hospitals too in the form of oxymeters, thermoscanners, PPE Kits, hospital beds and oxygen concentrators, as also mentioned above. In some cases we have also supported ventilators and video laproscopy equipment for black fungus operations. In a few cases ICU facilities have also been supported. We are helping set up COVID Care Centres for children. One such facility is at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Patna. There are 5 more children’s COVID care facilities coming up in Madhupur, Jharkhand and other public hospitals in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. We plan to extend this to other states. This is in anticipation of the fears that the next wave of COVID could hit children and those not vaccinated.

At the moment, in collaboration with district administrations, our volunteer teams are running vaccination awareness campaigns in 200 districts. On the basis of scientific, fact-based information, along with the FAQs, our teams are collaborating with community leaders, Panchayats and Ward Sabhas. To further these efforts we are using innovative ways to reach out to rural and urban parts of all these districts. It is an ongoing effort, and in several districts we are also assisting efforts of Health Departments in setting up vaccination camps in remote parts of the districts. For example, even as we speak, in collaboration and partnership with grounded civil society group and health department we are currently organising vaccination camps in Bishnupur district of Manipur.

 In these months, ActionAid Association has supported many daily wage workers, migrant workers by providing them dry ration for one month. In this regard we have focussed attention on most vulnerable workers and communities. In our efforts to bring issues of informal workers to policy makers, we have been sharing various grounded and participatory researches of the impact of COVID on vulnerable communities and informal workers with state and national institutions mandated to protect workers.  The National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) invited us to suggest solutions for protection of rights of informal workers during COVID. Many of our suggestions and inputs found place, subsequently, in the two NHRC Advisories on Informal workers issued to Union and State Governments in 2020 and 2021, respectively. Emerging from the second wave peak, what is the situation in the country now?

 ActionAid Association: Second wave was disastrous for all, and even more for workers who are not in secure work. It affected them severely, pushing them to precarity. Yet, coming out of the second wave, we do notice a degree of complacence on the ground on part of all, including in general- with people not practicing the COVID-appropriate behaviour.

Talking about the most hit class- the informal workers. Informal workers lost wages and people dependent on the informal economy lost incomes and livelihoods in the first wave itself. As they were about restarting to get employment, the second wave hit India. Apart from loss of wages and work and expenses of travelling back, in this wave were the added costs of health care for most. Hardly any wage loss or health care compensation has been given to workers. Government has announced free rations per individual, but that is not enough. There is a question about the precarity of livelihoods and therefore of their situation. Their children cannot continue education online since it means added costs of e-access and devices.  Many children of vulnerable communities are facing pressures of child labour and early marriage. Unpaid care responsibilities of women have gone up. Several very vulnerable and excluded communities face hunger.

 Goan slums have a large percentage of migrant workers living in very difficult situations. While as an NGO, and working within our limited means, we did support several thousands of workers with food rations in the first wave and now, migrant workers in Goa face very precarious conditions. They have lost jobs and even when they have managed to hold on, they are paid less wages, and there are several reports of illegal practices. Their children have dropped out of schools. In this context, apart from limited ration support, with support from institutions, we have started five community centres for children where around 350-400 children from families who have lost work attend classes daily. Much more needs to be done. As an NGO being active across the nation, where do you collect funds from?

 ActionAid Association: We are thankful to have support from several thousand individuals, and several corporate organizations and institutional donors in almost all states and nationally. In many instances we have also had support from State Government departments. Many people also came forward to support in this time. Just as an example to illustrate when we started a community kitchen in Patna, we deployed Rs. 2 lakhs from individuals and corporates. To date this initial money we provided has not been fully used, despite the high activity community kitchen facility, as many people and shopkeepers keep coming forward and providing free rations and other materiel for this kitchen as well as giving time to run it.  They are also supporting running helplines, distributing relief materials, and equipment to far flung areas. They are volunteering services at COVID Care Centres.

All our staff working with communities on our own projects or on projects supported by CSR and other institutional supporters have stepped in to provide COVID relief,  where possible. They have worked with district officials and in many places are part of the district-level COVID task forces.

During this time more than 46,000 volunteers joined our efforts across India, working for humanity along with other frontline leaders – like doctors, nurses, and medical staff. We salute all the unsung sheroes and heroes who have been working tirelessly in service of humanity, without any expectation for self.

We have received tremendous support from individual donors. We have thousands of regular givers who support us and they have stepped forward with additional donations for the COVID response.  Many new donors have responded to our direct appeals and to appeals we have made in partnership with crowdfunding organisations like Give India, Milaap, Ketto and many others.

Foundations like ‘Give India’ provided us with a range of oxygen concentrators. Our first oxygen plant was set up with support of EY Foundation.  We are also receiving support from Siemens, Colgate and many other corporate and foundations.

 Public personalities, including elected representatives of several states and what you would call “common people” also came forward and are doing so even now by providing  free ration and oxygen concentrators. In Bihar, a prominent people’s representative helped us with providing 50 oxygen concentrators.

 As member of a global federation we have also received support from ActionAid International federation members of several countries. Do you think the actions taken by the Government to overcome the second wave reached the citizens?

 ActionAid Association: This pandemic has been a lesson to us all, and as a country we are now aware of the gaps in preparedness of our public health system. Privatisation of health facilities has only added to this difficulty of universal and free health care in pursuit of a right to health. Majorities of our country cannot could not afford the costs charged by private health providers. Clearly, there is an urgent need to substantively enhance the quality, coverage and resources allocated for the public health care in our country. We need a strengthened public health care system with qualified staff, a better infrastructure and of course access.

 ActionAid Association’s eyes are on the needs which may emerge in future. We are making our humble efforts in supporting district authorities in strengthening health care facilities at the primary and district levels. The action to set up oxygen plants, or COVID Care Centres in districts, or COVID care facilities for children are small steps in this direction so that the less privileged do not have to depend on expensive and out of reach distant private facilities. Thus, the need is for immediately investing in and strengthening public health care and preparing for subsequent waves. Many believe that this pandemic is only a precursor to expected global health challenges of the 21st century, and therefore offers us an early warning sign to prepare for securing a healthy future for our people.

 The message of the Government with respect to the importance of vaccination did not fully reach the people, in the spirit intended. There has been a significant vaccine hesitancy on account of various factors, current and historical. In order to address this challenge, what is needed is transparent, timely and scientific information to all. Given that in this day of information overload with confusing and fake information, the need for authentic and timely communication becomes key in helping develop confidence and therefore public action.

Further, while we are known as the pharmacy of the world, and have great capacities to produce medicines and generic drugs, the production of vaccines lagged. To cover up and vaccinate fully by the end of the year, we must ensure vaccination targets of around 90 lakh per day are met, and we are still falling short of that. This will delay, and therefore make uncovered persons further vulnerable to subsequent waves and mutations.

Finally, working with informal workers, it is also clear that the support given to offset the impact of COVID on vulnerable communities and informal workers has not been enough. Given their precarity, their role as makers of our country as also to ensure we protect their future, informal workers need much greater support with monthly income transfers for the time they are not able to get work. Employment guarantees in rural areas must be extended in scope, time and coverage, and new employment assurance schemes must be initiated in urban areas, together with enhanced social security measures. Registration of informal workers and especially women workers such that they can be connected to various welfare schemes and other facilities is an urgent need. What preparation must we have to tackle the third covid-19 wave?

 ActionAid Association: We would like to emphasise three things which we must all have our eyes on. Firstly, to ensure universal vaccination. Secondly, make all preparations to save lives. And thirdly and importantly to save futures of millions of our people who are in extreme precarities now.

 Vaccination is the best Insurance. We need to ensure universal vaccination. Everybody must get vaccinated. All our collaborative efforts by the local administrations to unreached populations, and facilitate vaccination to the places close to people is the key. This has been done in the past during earlier vaccination campaigns, and there is no reason that it cannot be done in a speedier more effective manner with the advance of technology. Vaccination hesitancy must be dealt with by involving community leaders and community youth, elders and faith leaders to urge everybody to be vaccinated.

 Prepare to save lives. We cannot let our guard/mask down. There is no getting away from practicing COVID-appropriate behaviour. At the same time we have to ensure protection, safety and welfare of crores of our people who we call workers and small farmers, who have lost wages and livelihoods; for it is these women and men who with their labour made our country what it is today. We need to make sure that they are compensated for lost wages and get their livelihoods back on track. Reports tell, including ActionAid Associations labour survey tells us that crores of Indians have fallen back into poverty. It is societies and governance duty to protect them.

Save futures. Any crisis such as this pandemic also unmasks inequalities and inequities for a societal view while also presenting opportunities for social and economic resets. We need to introspect and build a new future of solidarity and welfare for all, based on principles we have long held dear, post our liberation struggles against feudalism and colonialism. Principles of social and ecological justice and equality. History offers us lessons to learn from, for we cannot be condemned to repeat history and we also cannot afford to be prisoners of history. What steps ActionAid Association is taking for the children who have lost their parents to COVID?

 ActionAid Association: We are identifying such children in need of care and protection. Around 89 in Goa have thus far been identified. While we have deep experiences in supporting children in difficult circumstances and ensuring continued education, the key for now is to link children thus identified with central and state welfare schemes meant for them, such that they can claim their entitlements which have been specifically announced during this second wave. Our teams are doing that across all states.


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