The global outbreak of COVID-19 has brought an unprecedented wave of unsettling information and urgent news. No matter where you are in the world, it has become difficult to escape the unnerving 24-hour news cycle. As a result, rates of stress and anxiety are on the rise while mental health experts call for less time watching reports, scrolling social media and reading the news.
But out of this chaos, a new, positive trend has emerged.
With fewer resources, people are finding new and innovative ways to solve everyday problems. Communities are discovering how to connect with friends, families and neighbors through virtual meeting spaces and group chats. Healthy, able-bodied people are bringing food and medicine to those unable to access it.
And now, some of the most impoverished people in the world are finding ways to help their peers and neighbors.
Innovation emerges from crisis
Around the world, the price of personal protective equipment (PPE) has soared. Face masks in particular have become a scarce commodity. In many places, the price of masks has increased by 400%, excluding economically vulnerable individuals from any chance at purchasing. Most Popular In: Entrepreneurs
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Two weeks ago a New York-based NGO called Children’s Hope India surveyed its on-the-ground partners to understand the need for PPE and sanitizers and deploy resources. (Full disclosure: I was recently appointed Executive Director of Children’s Hope India and causes like this one have long been close to my heart and work). Universal Just And Action Society, their partner in Jodhpur, India reported back that, despite the fact that the virus had not yet arrived to the city, masks were going for exorbitant prices on the black market—prices that have no doubt risen now that the Prime Minister has called for a complete shutdown of the world’s most populous country.
Jodhpur is home to an urban settlement of more than 3,000 refugee families. These families have immigrated from Pakistan, in many cases fleeing religious extremism and marginalization, only to arrive in India without an official migratory status or social support network, facing further discrimination and poverty.
But out of this area of high need, a new idea emerged. Why not fabricate masks to support neighboring hospitals and healthcare workers?
Creating a chain of sustainability
Acting quickly was critical to COVID-19 prevention in a particularly vulnerable population. Children’s Hope India and its partner, the Universal Just And Action Society, turned their Education Center into a base where female residents with basic sewing skills could learn about tailoring.
Children’s Hope India’s President and Pediatrician in the Northwell Health care system Dina Pahlajani says, “We knew how urgent the need outside of the settlement could become, so I had to quickly source some easy-to-understand and effective YouTube videos on sewing face masks.” Once she found the right videos, Dr. Pahlajani shared them with the settlement team and provided a cash grant so they could purchase the necessary materials at the local markets. Dr. Pahlajani added, “It was critical to provide the women with the materials and tools they needed so we could create a win-win situation for everyone in the community.”
With their masks in hand, these enterprising female residents set out to market their supply at fair prices. Within about a week, they had already distributed 1,500 masks to neighboring hospitals and nursing homes—always at the cost price.
As a whole, what started as an emergency response to a health crisis has resulted in a sustainable business and lifeline for impoverished, marginalized female refugees. Participating women used a peer-to-peer training model to acquire new skills, which in turn help them sustain themselves and their families in the long-term. Their earnings are directed back into operations, as demand for their fairly-priced product remains stable.
Seeing their great success, Dr. Pahlajani and her team shared the mask-making model with the Children’s Hope India Girls School in Bhopal, which provides education to young girls who would not otherwise be able to attend school. In less than a week’s time, the school’s principal had deployed sewing machines purchased by Children’s Hope India and raw materials to several student homes, and both parents and children were working side-by-side. They were able to manufacture 2,000 masks to sell to local hospitals and nursing homes, at the time of writing.
Where hope grows
What is inspiring about this project is more than its protection of a vulnerable community. It shows us that out of crisis, goodness can grow. Women with limited opportunities in society and urgent economic needs were able to learn a new skill and launch an entirely new and sustainable business in less than one week.
So, what’s next for these enterprising refugee women? They’re already training on how to sew hospital gowns and scrubs for healthcare workers—and adding new talent to their workforce.
And they have inspired women well beyond the confines of their refugee settlement. Children’s Hope India has scaled the model with students from vulnerable and slum communities not only in Bhopal and Jodhpur but also Delhi, creating a multiplier effect.
Buddhism teaches that it is possible to turn poison into medicine. Imagine what could happen if, during this time of crisis, everyone sought to turn their obstacles into opportunities like the refugee women did?