Indian officials declared victory over COVID-19 as they lifted the harsh lockdowns imposed to curb the spread of the virus in 2020. Then, in the spring of 2021, a second wave hit with breath-taking speed and severity. The healthcare system was pushed beyond its limits as case numbers skyrocketed into the millions. Hospitals turned away patients and family members searched in desperation for equipment providing precious oxygen. Between April and June, the virus claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
“We’ve been doing humanitarian work for about twenty years so we’re used to a lot of trauma, but this was so much in such a short period of time,” said Jatinder Singh, Canada National Director of NGO Khalsa Aid International. “People truly felt that COVID was at their doorstep.”
Mobilising the Indo-Canadian Community
The unfolding catastrophe in India was felt keenly in Canada’s South Asian communities. In response, a group of Canadian leaders of Indian descent came together to form a coalition to mobilise relief. “India touches Canadians in many ways. In the group that we pulled together everyone had family going through different challenges across India, and we wanted to do as much as we could,” said Narinder Dhami, Managing Partner of Marigold Capital.
The coalition joined forces with KBF CANADA to create the India Covid-19 Relief Fund. Leveraging their collective international networks, KBF CANADA worked with the coalition to identify and vet effective partner organisations and ensure funds were efficiently deployed with minimal management costs. The urgent needs expressed by local organisations included emergency medical equipment, preventive and diagnostic tools to relieve the burden on the healthcare system as well as food and other basic supplies for vulnerable populations whose livelihoods had been disrupted.
Maximising our Impact
The KBF CANADA India Covid-19 Relief Fund selected four initial partners, all Indian or Indian diaspora-led. SNEHA and GOONJ have large grassroots networks allowing them to provide efficient direct relief to vulnerable communities, while Khalsa Aid and GlobalMedic have the capacity to effectively deliver large quantities of medical supplies to those who need it most. “We’re very grateful to KBF CANADA for the partnership and the trust, for rallying people around a problem and raising funds coming to organisations like us who are really well positioned to respond,” said Rahul Singh, Executive Director of GlobalMedic.
Over a thousand Canadians responded to the Fund’s appeal for support. “We filled a need for people who wanted to give in a transparent and impactful way,” said Dhami. “The coalition and KBF CANADA provided a pathway to people who wanted to give more directly to affected communities.” In total the Fund has raised over USD 550,000 as well as millions of donated masks.
Distributing rations in Bhiwandi (photo courtesy of SNEHA)
SNEHA: Protecting the most Vulnerable
SNEHA works in 15 of the most precarious slum communities of the Mumbai Metropolitan Region to improve health outcomes for vulnerable women and children. In total the organisation reaches close to 265,000 beneficiaries directly, and about 1.2 million through their awareness campaigns. In addition to ensuring the continuation of their regular work on health and safety, SNEHA has reached out to their communities on preventive behaviour and provided mental health support to women who have suffered from the increase in domestic violence during lockdown.
When lockdowns resulted in a wave of hunger as daily wage earners lost their livelihoods, the organisation shifted to providing direct relief. “There were people who said, before COVID kills us, hunger will kill us,” said associate fundraising director Sangeetha Vadanan. “We decided that we have to support communities with food and medical supplies.” With Canadian support, SNEHA has supported close to 3,000 vulnerable families with ration kits of food staples and basic hygiene products. “I have five family members,” said Sannu Ansari of Bhiwandi, Mumbai. “None of us have any work, we are all at home. I want to thank SNEHA very much for giving us rations.”
With families crammed in close quarters during lockdown, SNEHA saw a surge in domestic and gender-based violence in its communities. The organisation had to find ingenious ways to communicate with women suffering behind closed doors: slipping their contact information into food
Ration distribution in Koochbehar district, West Bengal (photo courtesy of Goonj)
GOONJ: Caring for Left-Out Communities
GOONJ engages marginalised communities across India’s 27 states to alleviate poverty in a way that emphasises local autonomy and dignity. The organisation addresses crucial gaps in rural infrastructure, water, environment, livelihood, education, health, disaster relief and rehabilitation. It works with around 500 grassroots partners who have a deep understanding of local needs and help them respond quickly and efficiently in times of disaster. This year’s crisis compounded previous losses due to natural disaster, as well as the exodus of migrant workers from big cities to rural areas during lockdown. “2020 was the year that displacement was the disaster,” said team member Abhinav Dutta. “In 2021, the main disaster was medical.” Medical expenses made deep cuts into tight food budgets, creating an acute need for food aid. “Rations were at that point of time the actual oxygen,” said Dutta.
While GOONJ was reaching out to daily wage workers and migrant workers affected by the pandemic, “We realised that there are a lot of other communities that are still not being seen,” said team member Anmol Kaur. This includes those who are HIV positive or who suffer from leprosy, the transgender community, sex workers, and other marginalised groups. “We usually sing and dance but during the pandemic we are finding it difficult to make ends meet,” said a member of a transgender community in Alipurduar, West Bengal. “We are grateful to the organisations on the ground who are reaching out to us with essential supplies.”
GOONJ used KBF CANADA funds to provide ration kits, preventive medicine and basic hygiene support to over 1,600 families in these “ignored” communities, while maintaining their model of fostering local leadership. The customised kits included locally sourced produce as well as hand-made face masks and sanitary pads, providing alternative livelihoods.
Ravi Singh (in yellow), founder of Khalsa Aid
Khalsa Aid: Ears on the Ground, Partners in the Sky
Khalsa Aid International is a UK-based humanitarian relief charity with a Canadian office that provides support around the world to victims of natural and man-made disasters. Their team is often one of the first on the scene to help distribute food, water, clothing, medical and sanitation supplies. The organisation is based upon the Sikh principle of “Recognise the whole human race as one.” It has been working actively in India for over two decades.
KBF CANADA’s support allowed Khalsa Aid to deliver medical supplies where significant shortages were identified, providing 100 oxygen concentrators and six ventilators to over 10 state, community and charitable clinics and hospitals in the Punjab region. The facilities that received equipment from Khalsa Aid provided their services free of charge to end-users.
The organisation’s staff and volunteers in India work with state hospitals and community groups to identify and distribute the life-saving supplies. “We lean on our India team,” said Jatinder Singh. “They tell us what is needed, it really is listening to people on the ground and knowing what’s happening.” Khalsa Aid has partnered with a number of airline carriers and couriers to ship materials including Virgin Atlantic, British Airways and Air India as well as FedEx. Once the materials are on the ground local teams are responsible for getting to beneficiaries as efficiently as possible.
Getting ready to ship KN95 masks and other medical equipment (photo courtesy of GlobalMedic)
GlobalMedic: An Agile Approach for Maximum Impact
GlobalMedic is a Canadian organisation whose mandate is to save lives by providing short-term, rapid response in the wake of disasters and crises, both at home and abroad. With KBF CANADA’s support, the organisation was able to rapidly expand its response in some of the hardest hit areas of India, providing health care centres with desperately needed PPE as well as distributing oxygen concentrators and diagnostic tools to limit the overwhelm on the healthcare system.
The organisation pushed to source the highest-quality materials, procuring level-3 surgical face masks, KN95 masks as well as face shields, gloves and coveralls. These were distributed via local partners, including Khalsa Aid, the Toronto Calcutta Foundation in Kolkata, the Association of Kerala Medical Graduates (AKMG) and Indian Medical Association for Kerala. “The magnitude of the pandemic and the catastrophic images are shocking. It is only natural to feel small and disheartened,” said Dr. Nigil Haroon, President Elect of AKMG. “Our partnership with GlobalMedic opened many doors.”
At the same time, the NGO procured diagnostics tools to assist in determining whether a hospital visit was needed. Canadian funds were used to deliver 2,000 pulse oximeters, a simple tool to gauge blood oxygen levels. “When you’re out in the field, having that extra tool to help you means a lot,” said Rahul Singh. “These are very logical approaches to putting better capacity into a system that’s overwhelmed.”
GlobalMedic uses an agile approach, adapting their strategy to the resources available in order to maximise their impact, such as obtaining free shipping by topping up cargo in departing trucks and airplanes. When a donation of millions of face masks came in via KBF CANADA, they were able to use part of the Canadian funds to ship the valuable load. “It was great that we were able to use the funds in such a flexible way and find the best value for money,” Rahul Singh said.
New Dangers on the Horizon
The worst of the outbreak has now passed, and India’s vaccine rollout has started to pick up speed. Still, the crisis is far from over: widespread joblessness persists and has cut deeply into the purchasing power of already vulnerable populations. NGOs continue to respond to critical food and health needs while facing an educational crisis of unknown proportions.
At the same time, India’s battered healthcare system is preparing for a potential third wave of the virus. “The good news is we’ve got them some good help, the bad news is COVID is going to come back, they’re going to have another wave,” said Rahul Singh. The health of children is of particular concern, as most are not yet vaccinated, as are the possible dangers posed by new variants.
With an eye on these potential challenges and a determination to address the longer-term repercussions of the pandemic in India, KBF CANADA’s India Covid-19 Relief Fund will continue to mobilise relief, raise funds and identify new partners. “There’s still a lot of need and urgency in India, and we want to keep the process and channel in place so that we can be responsive to future needs as they come up and continue to deploy funding in an impactful way,” said Dhami.
To contribute to KBF CANADA’s India Covid-19 Relief Fund, click here.