What has COVID-19 taught us about disaster response? | IDR

Oct 28, 2021


Civil society organisations became the first responders during the #Covid19. Read about their response to the second wave as well as 4 key take-aways from it that can help us prepare for future disasters. Written by Natasha Joshi & Sahana Jose of Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies for India Development Review.

If you were a disaster, where would you strike? How would you make sure no one can avoid you? When would you show up?

As a disaster, you will likely do one or all of these things: find the densest, most vulnerable populations that have few ways of protecting themselves; occur when society least expects you; and keep evolving so that everyone remains in a state of confusion.

COVID-19 has been this disaster, and the second wave earlier this year was ferocious. It caught most people off guard; accelerated at an incredible pace, leading to the wholesale collapse of an already shambolic public health system; and left silent epidemics we are yet to contend with in its wake.

As the crisis started to unfold, civil society organisations came into play the first and the fastest. Owing to their connection with the ground and vital intel, grassroots organisations became the first responders. But, at the same time, another remarkable effort swept across the country—that of ordinary citizen volunteers. People who had never participated in social service or relief efforts found themselves making calls for oxygen or rations, driving ambulances, tending to sick people, or raising funds. These volunteer coalitions added capacity and revealed the power of the public, despite the failure of public services.

To make sense of the second wave and our experience as funders, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies convened a group of organisations that played an important role in relief efforts through the second wave.1 What emerged was a larger appreciation for the nature of disasters. Partners expressed the need to simultaneously look at building resilience, so that society can be better prepared, while also putting in place strong crisis management protocols, so that response and relief can be swift and efficacious when disaster strikes.

From this meeting we came away learning about four key areas that function as enablers (or barriers), along with questions around how work in each of these areas can be furthered.

1. Trust

Our partner organisations shared that trust played a vital role in getting people together to move quickly. Referral systems ensured trusted information came from the field, which improved the direction of fund and resource flow. Nonprofits with an already credible presence in certain geographies were able to build better relationships with the local government. In addition, access to politicians significantly improved response time to emergency requests. Citizen coalitions like the Covid Rural Response (CORE) are another example of volunteers tapping into pre-existing relationships to ‘make things happen’, including raising funds for such self-organised, informal networks that didn’t come under any institutional umbrella (something typically hard to raise funds for).

We realised the key here was pre-existing relationships or tapping spaces where trust already existed. In particular, partners attested to the value of their prior good relationships with well-meaning locally elected officials or community leaders, as these individuals were able to surmount regulatory bottlenecks well.

This raises the question: If trust is an ingredient for a resilient society, how can we invest in more trust building between multiple stakeholders?

2. Volunteerism

In any disaster, volunteers help add capacity on the ground. However, we obtained valuable feedback from field-based organisations on how and when volunteers are helpful versus when they get in the way. The second wave saw many volunteer networks kick into gear. But often different volunteer groups acted in isolation, which led to the replication of efforts that overwhelmed service providers (who were constantly being contacted by volunteers). There was a mismatch between the skills volunteers possessed and what field-based organisations needed in many instances. Within volunteer networks, institutional governance was also an issue—in case a volunteer dropped out, what they were working on left with them.

The question we must answer is: What are good ways to create open digital platforms where volunteers can register, be oriented, have their skills matched with needs, and have all this information shared in one place to avoid duplication while keeping volunteers engaged on a continuous basis?

3. Information and infrastructure

One common challenge in relief work pertains to the availability of timely, accurate, and verified information. The second wave relief efforts revealed that while there were many information gaps, certain institutions were underleveraged. For example, MyGov had comprehensive data on cases that at times local administrators did not have, but they weren’t aware that this data was available on MyGov.2 On the other hand, collaborations with primary health centres (PHCs) were successful for many nonprofits, indicating the potential for mitigation when basic public health infrastructure is in place.

For long-term resilience, greater engagement with the state and district disaster management authorities is also needed. There are certain cadres governments always call on in times of crisis—ASHA workers, Anganwadi workers, and often teachers as well. Ideating on ways to supplement the capacity and resources for these cadres is useful. For instance, one participant observed that Anganwadi workers could not visit villages for relief work as they did not have money for petrol. Bottlenecks like these are frustrating and ought to be removed.

To make progress on this front, we wonder: How can nonprofits, donors, and the government collaborate today to develop systems that will allow for better apportioning of resources in times of crisis?

4. Funding from a humanitarian lens

A tremendous amount of money was mobilised to deal with the second wave. Many donors radically shortened approval timelines and allocated large amounts towards relief efforts. Yet, many field organisations reported challenges with compliance and paperwork and funds being allocated towards what funders saw as useful versus the actual need on the ground. Two other things are common when disaster strikes:

  • All capital gets temporarily diverted towards relief-only work, leaving many non-relief-focused nonprofits in the lurch.
  • The silent and latent second and third order effects of the disaster such as livelihood shocks, relocation/migration, and impact on children (child marriage, missed immunisations, malnutrition, etc.) that arise downstream are not built into an overall relief plan.

A positive observation shared by field organisations and members of volunteer coalitions related to the emergence of ‘new-age funders’ (such as Ethereum), who were more open to experimental ways of self-organised and self-governed funding coalitions like CORE.

A question to explore this further is: What are some ways to engage traditional philanthropists, institutional donors, emerging new-age funders, and nonprofits in trust building for better disaster management? How feasible is it to create disaster-specific protocols that allow for information and pipeline sharing and faster unlocking of capital?

Building societal resilience against disasters is a complex, non-linear process that requires progress in multiple fields—health, education, livelihoods, climate, and technology. We hope to start with civil society.

The second wave showed us that civil society, when enabled, can bridge many gaps and serve as an equal partner to the state. Maintaining this trust is vital. COVID-19 blew open existing fissures in society, but it is not the last crisis we will face. With exacerbating climate change, society will find itself in the midst of small to big disasters. Pre-emptively building for that moment today can prove to be the investment we need for tomorrow. Can we out-think future disasters?


  1. Aapti Institute, Agami, Aveksha Hospital, Fields of View, Give India, Hasiru Dala, Institute of Public Health, Mapunity, Rainmatter Foundation, Rishabh Lalani (independent consultant), Sattva, Takshashila, and Swasth Alliance.
  2. Government of India’s citizen engagement platform which collaborates with multiple government bodies/ministries to engage with citizens for policy formulation and seeks the opinion of people on issues/topics of public interest and welfare.

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  • If you would like to join this small informal group in thinking and designing disaster-resilient systems for the future, please email natasha@nilekaniphilanthropies.org



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