Driving calibrated response to COVID-19: a story of fortress, enthusiasm and values

As we grapple with a pandemic that came out of nowhere and wreaked havoc across the world, the COVID Action Collaborative is tackling the situation differently – by using crisis as an opportunity to bring communities, urban and rural, together and making relief accessible to places where hope has been abandoned.

The Collaborative is a body of experts and organizations that have banded together to find innovative solutions to problems posed by COVID-19. Using expertise from diverse domains of technology, supply chain, public health, finance, behavioral sciences and communications, the team is driven by one goal: in times of crisis, help breaks past all obstacles and reaches everywhere it should.


In conversation with Shama Karkal, CEO, Swasti Health Catalyst, we try to understand her journey with the collaborative and the motivation that keeps her going.


The story behind the establishment of the #COVIDActionCollab (in Shama’s words)

In hindsight, I feel that we didn’t react or plan enough on the COVID-19 response. I had been following it all through Jan and Feb but what it would mean in India just hit me like a ton of bricks when cases started being reported in early March. As my colleagues and I began to grapple with what it would mean for staff, the people we work with, we realized that there were so many details and so much of it was dynamic. While we swung into action, we knew we had to work with other organizations – all kinds of organisations – because it was going to take all our collective expertise to fight and overcome the situation.


On what she envisions the collaborative to achieve

  1. Collaboratively support a range of different communities and organisations – share knowledge, expertise, tools
  2. Jointly raise and share funds to support the work
  3. Identify future opportunities for transformation – research, engagement with policy makers as well as institutional and individual capacities


On what the #COVIDActionCollab is positioned as and how she feels about it

It’s a coming together of many different types of organisations with one thing in common – a passion for people and change; a sense of caring and willingness to go beyond the expectations that are conjured up by labels (be they CBO/NGO/Enterprise/company etc.)

I’ve felt very humbled over the last few weeks; everyone I have reached out to about the collaborative has been positive and almost immediate in wanting to collaborate. I have also realized that even the organisations with whom we haven’t done tangible work, there is such an alignment in values and a trust that comes from “knowing”, that it has been easy to come together and there is also an eagerness.


On her COVID-19 call to action and the motivation that drives her

To me there are a few different calls to action –

  1. We are a public health organisation, so it is a moral imperative
  2. The pandemic is likely to affect the most marginalized the worst – they have been at the core of our work and I personally believe that that when the going gets tough is when the tough get going
  3. We have been working on integrated primary health care and there is no better opportunity than a pandemic to leap-frog the agenda. We have the ears of the community as well as the policy makers.


On societal stigma faced by workers in the frontline

I think it’s incredible that frontline workers should be experiencing stigma for risking their lives, to save lives. We simply must get rid of the stigma – for frontline workers as well as those who contract the disease. I am sure that there is fear or misconceptions but that doesn’t make it okay to treat people badly; be it COVID-19 or TB or HIV.


A shout out to few key collaborators

The list is fairly long but here goes – the 68+ COs that we work with in 5 States, the Catalyst Group orgs, GramVaani, ILFAT, SNEHA, Piramal Swasthya, Arunodaya, Technoserve, Urbanmorph


On learnings from the pandemic and from her work in the #COVIDActionCollab

  1. Making a collaborative work doesn’t happen easily – even in the best of times – so doing this during a crisis which is dynamic, requires a fair amount of maturity and will to be focused on outcomes; tests the resolve and patience given that funds are limited as well
  2. At the start of work, I was really burning the candle on both ends – maybe it was the adrenaline or simply the need to do as much as possible, as fast as possible. It took me about 6 weeks to realize that not everyone understood that or was moving at that pace. It took me a few weeks to realize that unlike the pace needed for an emergency such as an earthquake or flood, the pandemic is like a marathon; it requires a different kind of pace and stamina.


On the unseen challenges around working towards COVID-19 response and the path ahead

  1. The funding scene has been very unusual – slower and more cautious
  2. Working with the government or getting them to listen has been more challenging. I believe past relationships really need to be leveraged here, but that hasn’t been as quick either. So patience is required.
  3. There is fear among people and that needs to be confronted head on; easier said than done since so much is still unknown


About Shama Karkal

Chief Executive Officer, Swasti Health Catalyst & Lead, Calibrated Response for Vulnerable Communities, COVID Action Collaborative.

Shama Karkal is the CEO of Swasti Health Catalyst. She leads our responses to public health issues across India and global engagement with government, private sector, academia and non-profit partners. An alumnus of the School of Social Work, University of Maryland, Shama has worked in India and in the USA on public health, including leading one of the largest urban health engagements, Avahan III. Shama is a Steering Committee Member at the Asia Pacific Alliance for Sexual and Reproductive Health, and a Trustee of the Catalyst Foundation.


Edited by Debashree Chakraborty


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