Health care workers worldwide continue to lack access to adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Entrepreneurs, companies, and advocacy organizations, have been working in recent months to ensure that PPE is available to everyone, everywhere, equally. One is the US-based humanitarian aid organization Direct Relief, which has delivering millions of masks and gloves and tens of thousands of protective suits to help keep frontline workers safe since January.
Focused on responding to emergencies and providing health services for people living in poverty, Direct Relief works in tandem with public authorities, businesses, and other nonprofit organizations in 50 US states and more than 80 countries.
Global Citizen spoke to Direct Relief President and CEO Thomas Tighe, about how the organization is dealing with the impacts of COVID-19 around the world.
Global Citizen: As an organization on the front lines of COVID-19, what is the biggest thing you want the general public to know about what you've observed and how the crisis has evolved?
Thomas Tighe: As is often true in any emergency, everyone is at risk but some are more so than others. It doesn't matter if it's a hurricane or a natural disaster. The people who are generally most vulnerable in an emergency are the people who are generally most vulnerable before an emergency. We've seen that as the COVID-19 pandemic has unfolded.
The disproportionate infection rates, the disproportionate fatality rates, tend to track along racial and ethnic and income lines. That's an important thing to recognize, which is sometimes hard when everyone's concerned about their own wellbeing and their families, their local neighborhood, town, and community.
How is Direct Relief tackling the needs of various people and communities amid the pandemic?
Direct Relief’s focus is always on the people who struggle to obtain basic health services.
With respect to COVID-19, we did have stockpiles of PPE. We have an ongoing program of providing basic medical essentials, whether it's prescription medicines for people with chronic illness, supplies for people with diabetes, syringes, and needles for people who are low-income and struggle to afford those supplies, and supporting clinics and facilities that work in lower-income areas.
What we've been doing to tackle the needs is really mobilize the PPE. Our first priority was to make sure that facilities and health workers were protected and safe, so they could continue to perform.
For us, it was really important to recognize that the frontline community health centers that provide primary care are essential because what they do on a day to day basis is keep people out of the hospital. If the primary care network collapses that only leaves the option of hospitals — and that's a really bad idea when the goal has been to make sure that the hospitals had the additional capacity to deal with the prospective increasing patients who got very sick from COVID-19.
We've done thousands of deliveries of PPE to frontline community health centers and free clinics in the United States and partner organizations around the world, as well as backstopping the hospitals with PPE and other medications that are needed when people get sick.
Now it's really increasingly focused on Latin America and Africa because the States is sort of normalizing, there's been a big infusion of financial capital that the United States is uniquely able to mobilize with a couple of trillion dollars of public spending. That's just not an option for many other countries.
What's the most inspiring thing you’ve seen as the world tackles COVID-19?
It's a pretty fractured political time, at least in the United States everything tends to become highly politicized. We're not a political organization, we're not an advocacy organization. It's been very inspiring to see how many people, including all the people that you've [Global Citizen] pulled together from the artists' community, to participate, to do something that's inherently positive and un-self interested to just look out for each other.
Health workers that we work with on a day to day basis, all of a sudden their job became much more dangerous and they're deeply committed people that work in tough areas.
They were confronted with exceptional risks and they did so with courage, humility, empathy, and it was quite inspiring. The people that we know who were charged with dealing with this pandemic without adequate resources really stepped up and have done a terrific and heroic job with great dedication and empathy.
How can people take action and help your efforts?
We are working to provide the material resources needed for this new threat that's arrived in recent months. It arrived on top of existing threats to people's health, particularly people who are least fortunate.
It’s important for people who are wanting to do something positive to find something that speaks to them personally. There are so many good causes out there that deserve support. It's sort of presumptuous for us to say, everyone should give money to Direct Relief –– they shouldn't. They should give money or their time or support or energy to something that they care about and they should do their homework first.
The best thing I could hope for is that people who might be interested in what Direct Relief does learn what we do and visit our website and look at our social channels. If it speaks to you and it's something that's interesting, and there's an opportunity for a person to support Direct Relief, that's great. But if not, that's okay too.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.