When last we spoke with Megha Desai of the Desai Foundation, it felt like the sky was the limit. But like so much else during the pandemic, critical need forced the Foundation to pivot away from their ambitious campaign goals around mask-making, and toward medical aid on the ground.
Like so many other nonprofit organizations, the Desai Foundation has been prompted to learned unexpected (but no less impactful) lessons during COVID. When one door closes, another opens, right? The Desai Foundation, however, also decided to build new doors.
Pivoting from Mask-Making to Other Areas of COVID Response in India
At the beginning of the pandemic, Megha Desai hoped to create a “Masks of Hope” campaign in India and the United States. The plan was to transition the Foundation’s production machines, ordinarily used to manufacture inexpensive menstrual hygiene products for communities in India, into mask manufacturing tools. Once the technique and designs were honed, the plan was to bring those machines back to the United States, bolstering the supplies of PPE moving to first responders and essential workers.
“That program didn’t work,” Megha says. “We fought like heck to convert our machines, but ultimately there were too many conversion issues to bring that to the US. As someone who runs a nonprofit, there are all these weird details that I don’t know how to ask about – it’s definitely been a learning curve to figure out the workarounds of [pandemic] logistics.”
While the Masks of Hope program did not meet its loftiest goals, it’s hard to call it a failure in India. From April 2020 to February 2021, the Desai Foundation’s production lines churned out critical supplies for hard-hit rural communities.
“Over the course of those 10 months, we employed 350 women and made a million masks, distributed to vulnerable populations that needed it. As well, the work provide stable income safely for 350 women,” Megha reports.
The program didn’t make it to the US, but that gave the Desai Foundation more room to move when it came to their critical response programs.
The COVID Misinformation Crisis in India
In response to the growing information gap and the crisis surrounding COVID-19 in India, the Desai Foundation pivoted to meet the societal and familial needs of Indian communities, in addition to providing much-needed medical support.
One impactful Desai program has been the introduction of COVID isolation centers. Instead of traveling to an overcrowded, undersupplied hospital, community members who test positive for the virus can spend their quarantine time in an isolation center.
“[In India], isolation is a slightly foreign concept,” Megha explains. Indian cultural norms rely on an “it takes a village” format to take care of the sick and support bereaved families. Typically, a mild case of a virus like COVID-19 would be treated with bed rest and plenty of healthy food and drink brought over by caring neighbors and family members.
COVID-19 spread like wildfire through rural India, but critical information about the virus was slower to arrive. Because of this information gap, people with relatively minor cases of COVID-19 became infection hotspots for their friends and family. Furthermore, misunderstandings about the virus (for example, that anyone who contracts COVID-19 must be on oxygen) circulated wildly.
Staffed with medical workers, stocked with food and supplies, and with room for afflicted individuals to isolate effectively, the isolation centers offer both treatment and education.
“These centers are so important so that we can educate people,” Megha says. “As an organization that is in the business of empowering women and children through health and livelihood, those are the things we know how to do and those are the lanes we want to stay in – rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.”
In addition to the COVID isolation centers, the Desai Foundation has organized the collection and redistribution of unused COVID tests from the United States. Including 300,000 COVID tests donated by the Oregon Health Authority, the Desai Foundation has shipped 447,000 test kits to badly undersupplied areas in India.
It Takes A Village
Indian citizens need more than just PPE and COVID tests, however.
“One of the things that has been so tragic is that in these villages, the phrase ‘it takes a village’ is a real thing – and that goes for everywhere in India, not just in rural areas,” Megha explains. “When someone passes, it’s the same – the community comes out to support you. That’s not happening. So how do you create a virtual village when there isn’t one?”
Enter another of the Desai Foundation’s unexpected campaigns.
A support hotline, powered by a 65-page triage document containing “everything you could possibly need to know after someone dies”, opened for families and local workers across India. To date, the Foundation has received thousands of calls connecting with people on the ground.
Many of the calls have been from women unexpectedly finding themselves the head of the household or the sole breadwinner for a large family.
“We have seen the clock turn back on so many different areas [of women’s empowerment],” Megha says. “The long take of how women are going to recover from this pandemic is going to be something that I hope the world pays attention to. It will define how we as a globe value women.”
Reigniting the Back Burner
As the Desai Foundation looks toward a pandemic-free future, Megha hopes to reignite a number of campaigns currently on the back burner, like the campaign to provide subsidized menstrual hygiene products to incarcerated women in the United States. But she’s learned some lessons and now wants to approach the prison-based work differently.
“The more I’ve dug into it, the more I’ve realized I can’t just change the process by providing pads,” she says. The prison justice program has shifted to a legislative lens, with a goal supporting menstrual equity allies like Grace Meng and Cory Booker. “We’re now moving from the inside and trying to be of service that way.”
Megha Desai on Women and Girls in India: “Don’t Turn Your Eyes Away”
The Desai Foundation has much on the agenda as they head further into 2021. Pride Month celebrations are in full swing, and Indian communities around the world are starting preparations for Diwali and other holidays. In many parts of the world, life is starting to return to normal.
However, Megha Desai hopes that Westerners will remember the crisis in India and respond accordingly.
“Some epidemiologists say India may go through a third wave in August,” she explains. “Don’t turn your eyes away. Check on your girls and women in whatever country of focus you have. Take another look – look under the rug.”
In addition, Megha encourages people to get involved with organizations like the Desai Foundation by offering more than just donations. Contributing talent, pro-bono labor, and logistics assistant are just as important as cash flow, particularly as many organizations — the Desai Foundation included — shift to accept new forms of donation, like cryptocurrency.
“I just tried to explain crypto to my accountant. We need a wizard!” Megha jokes. “Foundations and NGO staffers are doing a lot of things we’ve never done before right now. We’re not great at them, so we need help.”
Finally, Megha leaves supporters with a reminder to ask questions: what we’re seeing on Western media feeds is often coverage of the crisis in Indian cities, but we cannot forget about the exacerbated issues in rural communities.
“We’re not really sure those 747s of oxygen are getting to them, you know?” she says. “So when you’re making that donation, ask the next question: can you send me a list of the hospitals and villages this is being sent to? I’ve asked those questions and you’d be surprised at how many times they don’t give you an answer.”
About the Desai Foundation: The Desai Foundation was born in 1997 as a family foundation started by Samir A. Desai and Nilima Desai. The Foundation had one simple goal: to serve the communities that had served them. In order to keep up with the pace of its growing organization, the Desai Foundation became a public foundation, and refocused its mission. The Desai Foundation is now a robust public and programmatic organization working to empower women and children through health and livelihood in India and the U.S. The Foundation believes that empowering local community members to run projects leads to the best results. And that restoring dignity is at the center of helping people to dream beyond their circumstances.
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