Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Access to Covid-19 vaccines and hesitancy around it are biggest challenges: Neera Nundy, co-founder of Dasra

Neera Nundy, co-founder of Dasra, talks about the difficulties in India achieving its Covid-19 vaccination targets, and the role philanthropy plays in it

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Sep 14, 2021 11:41:59 AM IST
Updated: Sep 14, 2021 07:41:53 PM IST

Access to Covid-19 vaccines and hesitancy around it are biggest challenges: Neera Nundy, co-founder of DasraNeera Nundy, co-founder of Dasra on why philanthropic donors are willing to contribute more quickly, how the pandemic has changed the nature of giving in India. Photo Credit:  Joshua Navalkar

In April, when India was battling the second Covid-19 wave, Dasra launched an initiative to raise about $10 million (Rs75 crore) of philanthropic money to help 100 NGOs reach Covid-19 vaccines and relief efforts to underserved and vulnerable populations. Five months later in September, the strategic philanthropic organisation based in Mumbai has not only surpassed its target corpus, but has also helped many more organisations working on the ground.

Neera Nundy, co-founder of Dasra, talks to Forbes India about why philanthropic donors are willing to contribute more quickly, how the pandemic has changed the nature of giving in India, and the different ways in which civil society organisations are helping vulnerable communities overcome vaccine fears, while enabling them to access vaccines and other essentials. Edited excerpts:

Is there a role for philanthropy in Covid-19 vaccinations in India?
Absolutely. You need philanthropic support in Covid-19 vaccinations to support the frontline, to help ensure that individuals and communities are actually taking the vaccine. Access to vaccines and breaking down hesitancy surrounding it are two of the biggest challenges. NGOs work on the frontlines to address these, and they are funded by philanthropy. So there is definitely a role for philanthropy to play on the access side of vaccinations, as well as education and awareness around vaccines.

Tell us more about Dasra’s initiative of raising philanthropic funds to help 100 NGOs working towards Covid-19 vaccination and relief work.
We have raised more than $10.5 million [Rs76 crore]. The initiative started in April, with a lot of people asking us how they could give towards oxygen supplies [during the second wave], but we realised very quickly that the issue would soon move from oxygen to those who are ill and may not be hospitalised, or need access to medicines. Then we realised we need to address issues like hunger, and now there are issues around how to make people more comfortable [about taking the vaccine].

It is important that the funding is flexible, as per the changing needs of communities, so that the NGOs can support those needs. There are a lot of organisations educating people about the need to take the vaccine; we have NGOs that have built trust within their communities, going door to door to address fears like death and infertility. It is not one thing for all NGOs; it’s more about what a specific community needs.

In our efforts, we have decided to move the funding very quickly. We have supported between $10,000 [Rs7.3 lakh] and $100,000 [Rs73.7 lakh] for these organisations. We also realised that a lot of smaller organisations could benefit from smaller amounts, so we might end up supporting a little more than 100 organisations. The idea was to figure out how to trust organisations and get the money out quickly. The other aspect is how to hear back—what’s happening, what’s making a difference—and we found that philanthropists and funders were more flexible about wanting to learn about the issues.

Who are some of the donors who have contributed to this $10 million-fund?
It is a combination of families, individuals, corporates and multinationals. About 40 percent contributors are foundations, followed by family foundations at 17 percent, CSR [funds] at 16 percent, individual donors at 14 percent and corporate foundations at 13 percent. What was encouraging for us to see was how many people gave so quickly, even at an individual level. Apart from India, we also have donors from the US, UK, France, China, Australia and Canada.

How many of the 100-odd NGOs are particularly geared towards facilitating Covid-19 vaccinations and tackling hesitancy?
There are close to 30 NGOs that are working with vulnerable communities, and are adopting interesting or innovative strategies. For instance, the Mann Deshi Foundation is supporting vaccination drives in rural Maharashtra by working with district authorities; the Kotda Adivasi Sangathna is working with tribal communities in Udaipur, Rajasthan; Swasti is enabling vaccinations among high-risk vulnerable communities; Sampark is working with migrant workers and their children by collaborating with municipal officials and primary health care centres; Yuva India is running vaccine help desks to spread awareness, address fears and misinformation; the Jan Vikas Samiti is raising vaccination awareness among the socio-economically backward members of the Musahar, Gond, tribal and Harijan communities.

To what extent is access to Covid-19 vaccines and fear of vaccination a challenge in India, and is the situation different from other countries?
There are perhaps more similarities than less, and there is no doubt that the most vulnerable and poorest communities across the world suffer both from access and fears. India had similar underlying challenges with polio, but we have overcome that. The polio drive was incredible in showing us how we can overcome those challenges, because it was politicised. NGOs can go out and get the [Covid-19 vaccine] coverage because it has not yet been politicised, and that is a real advantage. In the US, the decision to take vaccines is along party lines. We are not seeing that in India.

There is, however, a stark difference when it comes to access. The access that developed countries like the US have built cannot even be compared to India’s. There are states in the US that are reaching vaccination coverage of 60 or 70 percent; some districts are reaching 80 percent. We’re at over 7 percent in India.

The other thing is that we are still struggling to figure out vaccine delivery through the private sector. There is a role for philanthropy here, because there are people who cannot afford the Rs400 or Rs1,000 per dose that the private sector is charging.

A lot of companies and philanthropic organisations are supporting vaccinations for employees and their families. Do you see efforts going beyond that as well?
We are starting to see that, but it is happening through NGOs. The situation is more about NGOs saying that they need funding to support vaccination drives. Philanthropic families and foundations are not going directly into communities.

But you are right that organisations are getting their staff vaccinated on priority. Some companies have opened up their vaccine drives to vulnerable communities supported by NGOs. It will help if community and religious leaders focus on the need to be vaccinated. It has now become an important approach, whereby NGOs realise that they have to change the mindset of these leaders to make changes within communities.

What are some of the specific challenges people from poor or vulnerable backgrounds face while getting vaccinated?
The biggest challenge is of people being worried that they cannot go to work for a day or two after taking a vaccine dose because of side-effects. With livelihoods already under stress, many people do not want to take the time off, and many don’t get any time off either. So NGOs are taking groups of people to vaccination sites and helping them get medicines for mild symptoms so that they can go to work, providing them with guidance and food, and monitoring post-vaccination symptoms and anxieties.

Is the government recognising the role of civil society in expanding the reach of Covid-19 vaccines and relief measures?
There could be a lot more recognition, given the risk organisations take to be on the frontlines. The government, unfortunately, put a lot of regulatory restrictions in place. As a sector we are trying to help, but there could be a lot more recognition and support for NGOs that are delivering what the government should be delivering. It is not just about recognition, but also an understanding that these systems are broken and NGOs should not be creating parallel systems but strengthening government systems.

There have been collectives that asked the government to ease the FCRA regulations [Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, 2010] etc. But at this point, it does not feel like it is a priority for the government.

A lot of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds have been diverted to Covid-related causes. Have there been any shifts in philanthropic giving?
Everyone has been in self-preservation mode during the pandemic, trying to keep themselves, their families, their companies and employees alive. We have to be mindful that corporate money is going to be challenged and constrained, because business and economy is challenged. We have to be mindful that giving will be redirected, which is why families and personal giving have to be tapped into and accelerated. We have to build that momentum where online giving will increase, individuals and families will have new wealth, and promoter-led companies will give more.

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