Sharing meds and pain during pandemic

Medicine Banks—where people can donate their unused medicine and those who require them can receive them free of cost-- are coming up across the country.
Uday foundation staff sort medicines at Sarvodya Enclave, in New Delhi, India, on Friday, May 21, 2021. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/ Hindustan Times) PREMIUM
Uday foundation staff sort medicines at Sarvodya Enclave, in New Delhi, India, on Friday, May 21, 2021. (Photo by Sanjeev Verma/ Hindustan Times)
Updated on May 24, 2021 02:03 PM IST
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By, New Delhi

Last week, Anita Prajapati, a resident of Sixth Avenue, a multi-storey housing society of over 1,100 apartments in Gaur City, Greater Noida West, sent out a request on the society’s WhatApp group, appealing to the residents to donate their unused Covid-19 medicines. A week later, she put up a long list of the medicines she had collected and the message that anyone could pick any medicine – steroids, vitamin supplements, antibiotics—as long as they had a doctor’s prescription. “The idea was to create a medicine bank to tackle medicine shortage in the market and stop wastage,” she said.

The Sixth Avenue is part of a network of 30 housing societies that have come together to pool in their unused medicines, with 50 volunteers like Prajapati, known as ‘medicine warriors’ coordinating the effort. “We have placed boxes with the guards in all the societies, where people drop the unused medicines. There is a central database of all the medicines collected,” says Manjul Yadav, a software engineer and co-founder of the initiative called Helping Hands Medicine Bank.

Last month, as the Covid cases recorded a sharp spike, most medical shops across Delhi/ NCR ran out of essential Covid medicines, putting many patients in a precarious situation. That prompted many housing societies to form WhatsApp Covid- SOS groups and ‘medicine banks’—where people can donate their unused medicine and those who require them can receive them free of cost.

What started with a few RWAs is now fast becoming a movement across the country, with many NGOs, individuals, including doctors, starting unused medicine donation drives. Some of these initiatives are Covid Medicine Recycle, MedsForMore, Mission Medicine, and Resources Saanjh, among others.

These community initiatives, experts say, are significant because factors such as fear of exposure to the coronavirus while visiting a hospital or pharmacy, high cost, scarcity, hoarding and irrational use of medicines create barriers to access to medicines.

Many of these initiatives are born out of people’s personal experiences.

“I lost my uncle to Covid, we had a lot of his unused medicines. There were reports of a shortage of medicines in the market and I thought if Delhiites could donate their unused medicines, we could easily overcome the problem. So on our organization’s social media platforms, I requested people to donate,” says Rahul Verma, founder, Uday Foundation, an NGO.

The response, he says, was overwhelming.

In three weeks, his organization has received over 1,000 Kg of medicines, both Covid and non-Covid, new and unused. Donors, he points out, includes RWAs, individuals, companies; while many of them, he says, sent them by courier, others personally delivered hundreds of cartons and packets at the organization’s collection centre. “We are sending these medicines to slums, charity hospitals, and rural areas across the country,” says Verma.

Omkar Nath Sharma, 84, better known as Medicine Baba, who runs perhaps the city’s first and oldest medicine bank in west Delhi, says Covid has given a new push to the idea of medicine bank. In the last one month, he says, more people have visited his bank than ever before. “I have collected and donated medicines worth 12 lakh in one month. Besides, I sent packets to all parts of the country, including villages,” says the octogenarian, who has been going door-to-door across Delhi even during the lockdown with a loudspeaker in hand, asking people to donate unused medicines.

He has also placed several collection boxes at temples, gurdwaras and crematoriums. Sharma, who has hired two people to help him run the medicine bank, says, his associates run two more medicine banks in Faridabad and Chandigarh. “A lot of people called to know if I could get them remdesivir injection, but unfortunately, I did not have them.”

Jatin Dhingra, who travels to Sharma’s medicine bank all the way from Jahangirpuri to take medicines for his mother cannot appreciate his idea enough. “My father is no more and my mother has diabetes and high blood pressure. Her medicines cost 1,500 per month, an amount which I cannot afford,” says Dhingra.

According to a 2020 Brookings Institution report titled, ‘Medicines in India: Accessibility, Affordability, and Quality,’ the share of medicines in Out of Pocket Expenditure (OOPE ) was around 51% in 2013-14, which reduced to 43% in 2015-16, but still remained the biggest contributor to the OOPE incurred by households.

It was the plight of daily wage earners during the lockdown that prompted Shakeel Qureshi, an exporter, to start a Medicine Bank in Bareilly. The message on its walls says that all medicines are given free to poor people only on the prescription of a doctor. “During lockdown last year, I realised daily wagers had lost all income and could not afford to buy essential medicines. We have qualified pharmacists and are presently catering to 250 people every day, compared to 100 last year,” says Qureshi . “We purchase medicines from distributors and also collect unused medicines as donations. We intend to continue it even after the pandemic.”

Not just Qureshi’s medicine bank, the popularity of many of these unused medicine donation initiatives are rising fast.

For example, on May 1, Mumbai-based doctor couple, Marcus Ranney and Raina Ranney started MedsForMore, an initiative which connects people who have unused medicines with those who need it in their apartment building. Three weeks on, it has a presence in many cities, including Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Bangalore, Ahmadabad, Gurugram, Noida. So far, the initiative being led by teams of local residents across cities has collected over 150 Kg of Covid medicines.

“Society has experimented with similar ideas for books, food and, clothing, so why not do the same with medicines and health products. Our mission is to utilise the existing medical resources, both medicines and devices, as efficiently as possible,” says Dr Marcus Ranney, adding that it also has huge environmental benefit as unused medicines will not end up as biomedical waste in dumping grounds, rivers and the water supply.

Experts concur. “Medicine bank by RWAs is a great idea that can really help people when there is a shortage of medicines in the market. It can particularly benefit senior citizens who live alone and might find it difficult to go out and buy medicines in the market,” says Dr Arun Kumar Sharma , former professor, community medicine, University College Of Medical Sciences, Delhi.

“But RWAs must ensure that collected unused medicines are genuine, are given away to people only on a doctor’s prescription and only in required quantities,” Kumar said.

Dr Rajib Dasgupta, chairperson, Centre of Social Medicine & Community Health, JNU, New Delhi, says that it is the duty of the healthcare institutions—both private as well as public—to ensure an uninterrupted supply of medicines for patients during the pandemic.

“There are several barriers to accessing medicines during the pandemic. This issue becomes more important as Covid cases in rural India continue to remain high and may rise for some more time,” says Dr Dasgupta. “States should make uninterrupted supply of medicines a mandated and assured service to be provided by both public and private institutions. Covid medicines should be provided free to the poor. Citizens’ initiatives, I feel, can only have a limited impact.”

But Omkar Nath Sharma, aka the Medicine Baba, has a different take. “Medicine banks can play a big role in making medicines accessible to the poor during and after the pandemic. My mission is to open a medicine bank in every state,” he says.

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    Manoj Sharma is Metro Features Editor at Hindustan Times. He likes to pursue stories that otherwise fall through the cracks.

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