Guest Articles

May 26

Atul Tandon 

Desperate Times, Desperate Measures: A Microfinance Network Responds to the Devastating Reality of COVID-19 in India

The news from India, my home country, is heartbreaking. Many friends and I have lost loved ones over the last few weeks. As of May 26, there have been over 27 million confirmed cases of COVID-19, with over 311,000 deaths. And due to unreliable testing and reporting, the real numbers could be orders of magnitude higher.

Families are suffering, sick and starving. Many do not have the ability to isolate or keep themselves from falling ill. Urban workers are returning home to villages and bringing the virus with them. And misinformation is running rampant, making it incredibly difficult to keep people informed and healthy.

It’s a crisis that has escalated dramatically over the past several weeks, and one that is disproportionately impacting those who were already vulnerable — rural communities, families without access to quality healthcare, people who struggle to put food on the table, and those living in poverty.

Throughout our 50-year history, Opportunity International has been on the frontlines of a number of humanitarian crises. By designing and delivering innovative financial solutions, tools and training to some of the world’s most vulnerable communities, we’ve helped them face catastrophes ranging from natural disasters and droughts to wars and political uprisings to floods and famines. Now, in the face of a global pandemic, we are doing what we’ve always done: helping our millions of clients around the world survive today so that they can continue to thrive tomorrow. Below, I’ll share some of the ways we’re helping our clients in India navigate the COVID-19 crisis.


Leveraging our Network to Support India’s Pandemic Response

For years, we have built a robust network of microfinance partners throughout India. Our local teams know our clients — and our clients trust our teams. Now, in the face of disaster, we are using these trusted partners to help our clients survive and to deliver emergency relief to those being hit the hardest.

We are meeting families’ immediate needs by leveraging our skills, experience, relationships and network of local microfinance institutions. In India right now, our top COVID-19 response priorities include working to prevent infections and hospitalizations, helping sick and exposed families manage symptoms, making telemedicine available to as many families as possible, helping relieve the pressure on the overburdened healthcare system, and facilitating the distribution of vaccines when they become available. To support these goals, our microfinance partners have helped mobilize 2,340 community health workers to nearly 1,000 villages.

Our extensive reach in rural India is of crucial importance in addressing this evolving crisis. On May 19, AP News reported that “while megacities such as Mumbai and New Delhi have seen signs of improvement in recent days, there is concern that the virus is spreading through the vast countryside where a majority of the people live and where health care and testing are limited.”

In response to the growing challenges rural communities are facing, one of the most innovative strategies our team in India is implementing involves transforming our network of offices — traditionally used for financial transactions — into emergency response and triage centers. Opportunity staff and community leaders are using the available computers and phones in these offices to help patients connect to telehealth services. And with support from donors and partners around the world, we are also setting up basic care beds and oxygen.


Easing the Burden on India’s Healthcare System

These emergency centers are designed to ease the burden on overrun hospitals and medical facilities, giving patients with moderate symptoms a safe place to receive basic treatment without taking up valuable space in a hospital. In addition, those with worsening symptoms can use these regional hubs as a temporary solution, where they can be monitored as staff members from our microfinance partners look for more comprehensive care.

To that end, our partners have designated certain staff members to help patients navigate the daunting tasks of calling hospitals, finding available beds and setting up transportation to move patients to different facilities. In rural regions, where health centers are especially ill-equipped to handle mounting COVID-19 cases, these temporary solutions are even more critical — putting basic care right where people need it most.

In addition to these new triage centers, we are fighting misinformation by educating communities about the true risks of COVID-19 — and the precautions they need to take to protect themselves. Our partners are educating clients about pandemic-related health risks through text messages and public service announcement campaigns. And we are working through our existing networks to provide food and supplies to the most vulnerable clients so that they can isolate at home, instead of having to make the impossible choice between staying safe and feeding their family.

As this work continues, I’ve heard updates from both my colleagues and my family and friends: The situation they describe is dire — probably even more dire than any news outlet is reporting.

Our job in the face of disaster is to respond to the crisis at hand — first by listening, and then by implementing programs that will help families living in poverty right now. For years, we have built a robust and trusted presence in India, particularly in rural villages and communities. We have gone where others have not — and now, we are leveraging these relationships to ensure that people living in hard-hit, often-forgotten rural regions make it through the pandemic, too.

We believe that our clients will thrive again tomorrow — but first, we need to help them survive the devastation they’re facing today. You can support Opportunity International’s emergency initiatives in India here or learn more about our ongoing global coronavirus response here.


Atul Tandon is the CEO at Opportunity International.


Photo courtesy of Shubhangee Vyas



Coronavirus, Finance, Health Care, Transportation
COVID-19, financial inclusion, microfinance