How 5K women from Healing Fields Foundation fought COVID-19 in rural India
In Kalapur village in Uttar Pradesh, most people were not taking the second COVID-19 wave seriously, thinking it would pass just as the first wave — except for Shakuntala — the only community health entrepreneur in the village, who knew cases were rapidly increasing and claiming more lives.
“I felt like I had to do my part and save the village from turning into a COVID-19 hotspot. Healing Fields Foundation had set up a quarantine facility, and I got people with symptoms like fever, cough, and headache to quarantine immediately,” Shakuntala says, adding the village steered clear of any potential outbreak.
In fact, Kalapur reported only a few cases, which inspired nearby villages to follow safety measures like maintaining social distance and wearing masks.
Thirty-two-year-old Suman Thakur, a community health entrepreneur (CHE) since 2014 and later a basic care provider (BSP) in Chhichhor village in UP — says villagers were not keen on letting migrant workers return home when COVID-19 first broke out in March 2020.
She recalls, “Even the family members were ignoring them because they were worried about the children contracting COVID-19. I convinced the Panchayat and schoolmasters that we have to make some arrangements because they are our villagers and can’t just turn away. When they still wouldn’t unlock the schools, we made arrangements on the school terrace and supplied them with daily essentials with the help of Healing Fields Foundation.”
Established in 2000, Hyderabad-based non-profit organisation Healing Fields Foundation was founded by Mukti Bosco, who had envisioned making healthcare accessible in rural India by creating a network of women as community health entrepreneurs.
Two decades later, these efforts culminated in helping rural India fight the pandemic when most villages were ill-equipped with existing healthcare infrastructure.
The NGO’s flagship programme has 5,000 women CHE, reaching 6.25 million individuals across 10 states.
These women have been trained as first healthcare responders, ensuring the COVID-19 situation remains under control in their respective villages.
In fact, the World Economic Forum has recognised the work of these women and selected Healing Fields Foundation among India's top 50 COVID-19 responders.
Mukti was pursuing her Masters in Healthcare Management from ASCI-Hinduja Institute-Johns Hopkins University when she learnt about the failed state of “healthcare plans” after interacting with locals at Charminar area in Hyderabad.
She recalls that a six-year-old had left school to make ends meet as the father was ill with typhoid, and the family had to return a loan of Rs 5000.
“My son was just five years old at the time, and I felt it was so unfair for such a young child to work 12 hours a day,” says Mukti — a 2017 Ashoka Fellow and the MSDS Woman Social Entrepreneur Award winner for 2009.
In other villages, she saw people willing to pay in exchange for a dignified and helpful medical infrastructure within reach.
After years of planning, gathering resources from the ground, besides managing funding challenges and the lack of professional skills available, Mukti is fulfilling the twin goals of making healthcare accessible in rural India and making women financially independent through it.
The NGO is run on donations from a mix of foreign and Indian organisations and CSR donations from corporate companies. Most of the COVID-19-related initiatives are supported through crowdsourced funding.
Marching on with dignity
Thirty-seven-year-old Shakuntala is a mother of three — two daughters and a son — and lives with her husband and mother-in-law. She had spent most of her life beneath a Ghunghat (veil), caring only for household work.
She says, “As I got trained and started interacting with people and helping those in need, the Ghunghat went up as did my self-esteem and confidence. My husband told me just to focus on the work and not care for what others think.”
Meanwhile, people who used to question her for working, today respect her. When not tending to medical emergencies, Shakuntala can be found going from door to door, educating people about the importance of taking the COVID-19 vaccine, how it helps boost immunity but not shield entirely from the disease, and how one must eat well before taking the jab.
Shakuntala, a community health entrepreneur, hosting a session on COVID-19 safety measures
“I am very grateful for the foundation for making me capable of serving anybody in need,” she says.
Besides immediate medical interventions, Healing Fields Foundation is educating the rural masses about menstrual health through programmes and the distribution of sanitary napkins, among others.
The organisation is now looking to launch telehealth services in over 300 villages across Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
“We want to scale and would like to partner with the government and other like-minded organisations and share what we have built so far because one organisation cannot bring change. Hence, the focus is on partnerships," says Mukti.