U.S. Catholic health systems among those aiding countries hit by COVID outbreaks

June 1, 2021

Overseas providers in desperate need of funding, oxygen supplies, PPE


Mid-spring brought crisis levels of coronavirus infections to several countries around the world that were under-resourced and unprepared to ward off outbreaks and treat the sick.

At a crematorium in New Delhi, India, on May 11, a mourner in personal protective equipment prays in front of the burning funeral pyre of his father who died of COVID-19. As of May 18, India had reported more than 25 million cases of COVID.
Amit Sharma/AP Photo

According to World Health Organization data dated May 18, India had reported more than 25 million of the 163 million confirmed cases of COVID worldwide and more than 278,000 of the more than 3 million deaths.

"As I'm sitting here in India today, the situation is very, very grim, and we've never felt so helpless as we do now," Sr. Beena Devasia Madhavath said during a Global Health Networking videoconference that CHA held via Zoom on May 5. Sr. Devasia Madhavath is an Ursuline of Mary Immaculate sister stationed in Mumbai who heads the Sister Doctors Forum of India.

"There is a scarcity of (hospital) beds and essential medications and oxygen," said Fr. Mathew Abraham on the call. He is the immediate past director-general of the Catholic Health Association of India.

"There is a lot of death," Bishop Julius Marandi of Dumka said on the call.

COVID was also surging in Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Uruguay throughout the spring, overwhelming the health care infrastructure and causing mass illness and death. In all these nations, providers have been hamstrung by extreme shortages of personal protective equipment, testing supplies, therapeutic medicines, oxygen, hospital beds and, in some cases, clinicians. People fleeing urban centers spread
infection into rural areas ill-equipped to feed, house or provide medical care to the pandemic migrants.

Contributions from the Catholic health ministry helped support Catholic Relief Services donations of handwashing stations and personal protective equipment in Kenya as well as sanitation training for health care workers.
Florence Ogola/Catholic Relief Services

"The types of outbreaks happening in low-resource countries like India today will continue to be repeated in the future" as long as there is inequity in the distribution of scarce health care resources, Georgia Winson told Catholic Health World. She is president and executive director for the Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach medical surplus recovery organization. "Those of us in countries with resources need to help meet the needs of countries without resources."

Catholic health systems in the U.S. and their international aid divisions are scrambling this spring to determine how best to aid providers and vulnerable people in the hotspot countries. They are providing funding, equipment, supplies and other aid, primarily working through international aid organizations and/or in-country contacts.

Cash preferred
Most U.S. Catholic health systems were active in international aid well before the pandemic, coordinating medical volunteerism, donations of supplies, financial contributions and other support. Many systems have historical international ties that have to do with the global presence of their founding congregations. Throughout the pandemic, these health systems have identified the pressing needs of foreign nations through their in-country contacts and responded with various types of aid. They upped those efforts significantly with COVID's spring onslaught.

Trinity Health's Global Health Ministry has been working with local partners to build a much-needed oxygen plant and to funnel food and medications to people in need in Chulucanas, Peru.

The aid organization also is working with Trinity Health's supply chain to provide personal protective equipment in Peru, and with Trinity Health's information services division and a Trinity Health family practice in Delaware to provide telehealth services in Peru.

In-country contacts
Bon Secours Mercy Health long has had a presence in Peru through Bon Secours Sisters who serve there. Camille Grippon, Bon Secours Mercy director of global health, said the sisters have been reporting a failed health care system and desperate conditions, including oxygen shortages so bad that families are paying 1,000% markup for oxygen on the black market.

Since the pandemic's start, Bon Secours Mercy has provided relief totaling more than $500,000 in Peru, Haiti and South Sudan. The funds have gone for oxygen, health care capacity building, personal protective equipment, handwashing stations, food and medicine. The funding in Haiti and South Sudan has been for preparedness, in case of a surge.

India outpost
Providence St. Joseph Health is connected to India through a Providence Global Center it opened last year in Hyderabad. The center employs 300 and provides information technology back-office support such as cybersecurity and data analytics services to Providence. Providence also is connected to St. Joseph Hospital in Nagpur, which is run by the Sisters of St. Joseph.

A parish volunteer in Esquipulas, Guatemala, helps deliver food funded in part by Global Health Ministry for distribution to families in remote villages. That organization paid for the food using funds given by Catholic health ministry volunteers, as well as a bequest from a benefactor.

Ali Santore, executive vice president and chief advocacy officer of Providence, said many of the system's U.S.-based employees with family ties to India are donating to relief efforts through a platform Providence set up for that purpose.

During the recent outbreaks, the system gave $150,000, including $50,000 in employee donation matching funds, to purchase oxygen concentrators, ventilators and other supplies in Hyderabad and Nagpur as well as materials to set up isolation units in Hyderabad.

Power of partnership
Many ministry systems are contributing to Catholic Relief Services, which is raising money to provide medical supplies distributed through the Catholic Health Association of India. That organization's members operate more than 3,000 health care facilities.

Ascension's Resource Group and Ascension Global Mission are partnering with medical surplus recovery organizations to transport products and equipment, including N95 masks, procedure masks, gloves and other in-demand items, to India. Ascension Global Mission also is providing financial assistance through trusted partners in other affected countries, as well, according to Susan Huber, president for Ascension Global Mission.

A Benedictine monastery truck delivers food packed by parish volunteers in Esquipulas, Guatemala. The supplies were funded in part by support from Global Health Ministry.

Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach is a nonprofit medical surplus recovery organization that receives ongoing supply donations from numerous hospitals — including those within Hospital Sisters Health System, and some operated by Ascension, Mercy, SCL Health and SSM Health. Its supporters have increased their supply donations to aid countries struggling under COVID outbreaks, and they and other donors have provided funding for purchasing additional goods in-country. Winson said trade routes have been disrupted amid the pandemic and shipping costs have skyrocketed.

CommonSpirit Health is donating more than 630,000 surplus pieces of personal protective equipment to health care workers in India, including masks, gowns, goggles, coveralls, face shields and N95 face masks through a partnership with Air India and Rotary International.

Through a local partner — the Emmanuel Hospital Association charity care network in India — CommonSpirit is providing tailored reflections, self-assessments and other wellness tools for India's overwhelmed health care workers. It offers live online support sessions for staff of Emmanuel Hospital Association facilities as well as coaching for those facilities' leadership.

"Globally, this crisis is far from over, and the current situation in India is dire. We have a moral responsibility to support others as they manage the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic," CommonSpirit Chief Executive Lloyd Dean said in a statement on the donations.

Catholic organizations urge vaccine equity

Directors of global aid participating in a CHA-hosted Global Health Networking videoconference agreed that inequitable worldwide distribution of lifesaving COVID-19 vaccines and other critical supplies is a moral and medical issue that demands the attention of all countries and providers that have an abundance of resources.

Jennifer Poidatz, Catholic Relief Services' vice president for humanitarian response, said in the May 5 meeting that CRS is in communication with the U.S. government, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other agencies to determine how best to ensure vaccine reaches poor countries and that the most vulnerable people get access to the drugs.

Another presenter, Fr. Mathew Abraham, the immediate past director-general of the Catholic Health Association of India, said vaccine shortages are widespread in that country and there was no sign that would abate in the near future.

There are severe vaccine shortages in poor countries around the world. The New York Times maintains a worldwide COVID tracking website that is updated daily and that is based on data supplied by governments and compiled by the Our World in Data project at the University of Oxford. According to reports on that site dated in mid-May, "More than 1.32 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide, equal to 17 doses for every 100 people. Only 0.3% of doses have been administered in low-income countries."

Ali Santore, Providence St. Joseph Health executive vice president and chief advocacy officer, told Catholic Health World in May that Providence may partner with the American Hospital Association and others in efforts to relieve vaccine shortages in other countries.

Santore said Providence supports the efforts by the Biden administration to address inequity in vaccine distribution, including potentially waiving some of the intellectual property rights of vaccine trademark holders to increase vaccine supply in low-resource countries. The Biden administration says it will ship 20 million doses overseas this month with another 60 million pledged to aid other countries.

Providence is among ministry systems that are supporting migrant inclusion in COVID-19 vaccine access in Europe and the U.K. advanced by the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility. Anticipating inequity even before the vaccines had been developed, the coalition of faith- and values-based investors wrote to the world's largest pharmaceutical companies in February 2020 warning of a potential "vaccine apartheid" if low- and middle-income countries were not prioritized in vaccine distribution.


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