The Rebuilders: Goalkeepers constructing the post-pandemic world
Foreword authored by Christian Vanizette.
Lockdowns. Social distancing. A health crisis with effects that have rippled across society and reinforced inequalities.
It can feel tough to be an optimist these days.
To me, maintaining optimism in these challenging times is about overcoming walls of polarization by building stronger bridges. At Makesense, the organization I co-founded ten years ago, we wondered: Can our generation meet the moment by creating a chain of solidarity as viral as the virus itself? How can we support each other more than ever even though we’re physically separated?
The COVID-19 crisis became a catalyst. We created hundreds of new mutual aid groups on WhatsApp that organize volunteers to build these bridges towards our shared Global Goals.
Together, thousands of strangers became hundreds of thousands of actions: Collecting hygiene kits for people who are experiencing homelessness; making courtesy calls to isolated elders; providing homework help for vulnerable students; collecting food donations for informal workers; gathering personal protective equipment for caregivers.
As this year’s Goalkeepers report has shown, COVID-19 has stopped progress toward the Global Goals. To get back on track, we need new technologies developed at lightspeed. We also need everyone to realize they have the power to help create change. Below, we share stories of a few heroic individuals already working on rebuilding their communities. I hope that they help show that waves of hope can be contagious.
- Christian Vanizette, Goalkeepers Advisory Board member and co-founder, Makesense
Didis and India’s cottage PPE industry
Mahua Roy Choudhury, JEEViKA, Women’s self-help group, India
In early February, people in large swaths of the world were unaware of just how devastating the novel coronavirus would be. But the women of JEEViKA, an organization helping to alleviate poverty in rural Bihar state by organizing self-help groups (SHGs), quickly got to work. JEEViKA reaches 1.2 million women, and through these community-based groups, women provide economic, health, and social support for each other.
“We started working on transferring information,” said Mahua Roy Choudhury, a JEEViKa program coordinator. They collected information on symptoms, health advisories, as well as prevention and began disseminating details by pamphlet, phone, and video.
“It was like a chain reaction,” Choudhury said. “One of our members would get the information and she calls up another five women to say, ‘Look, this is a disease which has come in.’”
Villages took it upon themselves to support returning migrant laborers with food and benefits. SHG members, referred to as didis, sewed 21.6 million masks and trained more than 8 million members on COVID-19 protective behaviors. Didis with banking training made sure villagers had access to cash and transacted over $80 million—crucially important at this time.
“Our didis, they have really surprised us,” Choudhury said. “This entire process was such a community-led and community-driven program, and it was majorly taken up by our self-help group members.”
In Zambia, nuns turning alarm into action via radio
Sister Astridah Banda, Zambia
When Sister Astridah Banda first learned of COVID-19, she was alarmed. Everyone around her in Zambia’s capital city, Lusaka, was vulnerable, and yet prevention information was just available in English. While English is the official language, many only speak one of Zambia’s local languages. Sister Banda quickly turned alarm into action.
Working with a doctor provided by Alight, a humanitarian organization, she and other nuns learned all they could about the virus. But how to share that information?
The answer: Radio. At Yatsani Community Radio in Lusaka, Sister Banda started a talk show where the sisters discuss prevention in several local languages: It’s an informal conversation, featuring guest experts and call-in questions from listeners.
“I felt really enthusiastic to share information so that we could reduce the number of people who actually got COVID-19,” she said.
The radio station can reach 1.5 million people, and the program has now been replicated in other regions.
“I felt the agency to do something as an individual,” she said. “To do something for my country, for my people.”
Community members have been enthusiastic.
A quick pivot in Ghana to combat the virus
Dr. Laud Basing, Incas Diagnostics, Ghana
In 2019, Incas Diagnostics was focused on inexpensive, rapid, point-of-care tests for pregnancy, drug use, and other health issues. “The idea,” said CEO Dr. Laud Basing, “was to ensure access to tests that otherwise would be out of reach for many in the community.” Then came news of a pandemic—and even before the virus arrived in Ghana, Incas decided on a quick pivot.
“We wanted to look at how we can contribute to the fight,” Basing said. The team developed a serological test for COVID-19 antibodies that can deliver results in 20 minutes. The company decided to forego any profit on the tests and plans to distribute them through the Ministry of Health.
“The virus has brought so many problems,” Basing said, but it’s also “brought to the front the fact that a lot of people are willing to just step up and do good.”
Nigerians helping Nigerians protect themselves
Blessing Mene, Vetsark, Nigeria
At first glance, Blessing Mene’s company seemed like it wasn’t particularly suited to fighting a pandemic. Vetsark develops computer programs for veterinarians and farmers. But when COVID-19 hit, he looked around and saw calamity waiting to happen—especially in densely packed Ajegunle, a sprawling slum in Lagos.
“Social distancing is an expensive luxury for people within that community,” he said. “People did not even have enough money to buy food for their families, let alone buying a face mask.
”He and others from Vetsark provided thousands of face masks and hygiene items in Ajegunle, targeting essential workers. The masks were made locally by out-of-work tailors. They also went door-to-door to share information about the virus and how to protect against it.
“Africa has tremendous potential,” he said, “and most of the changes for the good of Africa will have to come from us, who are here. Being a part of the narrative of Africans moving the continent forward is one of the big things that motivates me.”
She helped retool Rwandan digital health for COVID-19
Dr. Shivon Byamukama, Babyl, Rwanda
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in Rwanda means making sure the sickest can get to hospitals. But Dr. Shivon Byamukama, managing director of Babyl, knew it would also involve keeping people with less serious illnesses out of hospitals. Babyl, which provides telehealth services for 2.3 million Rwandans, quickly retooled its work to ensure two things: Everybody who uses its services would stay informed about COVID-19, and hospitals could stay ahead of the onslaught.
“We know that digital health can provide some solution, so that the really critically ill stay in hospital, and then everybody else can be treated from home,” she said.
A few years ago, she said, many people couldn’t conceptualize how health care could be delivered by phone. Now, things have changed. The government is pushing out COVID-19 information via SMS. And at Babyl, “there’s been a growth of 155% of people calling from home,” Byamukama said.
“It’s a cost-effective way,” she added, “of ensuring health care is accessible to all.”
In coronavirus response, German hackathon surfaces ideas
Henrike Schlottmann, ProjectTogether, Germany
It only took four days after ProjectTogether’s offices shut down due to the pandemic for the team to come up with an idea: A hackathon, geared towards the coronavirus response. ProjectTogether’s mission, after all, is to solve social challenges with a bottom-up approach, looking to the community for ideas and institutions for implementation. Surely, community members would have ideas to improve lives during the pandemic.
“We were completely overwhelmed,” said Henrike Schlottmann, co-managing director. Tens of thousands of people signed on to participate in the hackathon, called #WirvsVirus (in English, “we versus virus”). Some 3,000 companies donated infrastructure and expertise. The government was enthusiastically on board, too.
In 48 hours, the hackathon generated 1,500 ideas; 130 were selected for further development. They include: An app to help those experiencing domestic violence; a website to fact-check coronavirus news; and a simple way to apply for financial benefits during the crisis.
Schlottmann and the team were energized. The experience, she said, shows that “it’s possible for us, as citizens, to be active, to develop a solution, and then to work together with the German government or companies to implement [it].“That means that you, as a citizen, you can change something.”