Community Spotlight: Covid Action Lab

Akshat and Srujani
Akshat and Srujani, co-led the NC Covid response and co-founded Covid Action Lab to effectively respond to the devastating 2nd wave. Engaging the community through Whatsapp, Discord, Instagram and an online platform, they created a basket of services for anyone in need. The community provided medical resources, free doctor consultations, workshops and events to raise funds, a fundraiser verification mechanism and access to mental health resources amongst other things.

What do you do? 

 I am an MPP student and a Li Ka Shing Scholar at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS. An engineering by training, the cause I deeply care about is structuring chaos through a systems thinking approach. Over the last half decade I have worked with Government of India and non-profits in domains of skill development, road safety, geriatric care and human trafficking, where I led data driven, evidence based projects. 

Apart from my day job, I am also a self-taught coffee brewer, and a social entrepreneur : 
  • Kafkascup ( - My #Coffeeforgood community for promoting Fair Trade coffee and consumer education. Recently I have been undertaking coffee “0 to 1” workshops to raise funds for covid relief, which have positively impacted over 500 rural and tribal families. 
  • Co-founder CovidActionLab (CAL), and Co-lead, NC Covid Relief response with Srujani. 
  • Sex-ed educator for boys, Mentor for at-risk kids, and a Mentor for Change with NITI Aayog Atal Innovation Mission. 
  • The Politibrew - a newsletter aimed at helping understand our day to day news events better. 
I’m an Environmental Engineer working as a sustainability professional in an International Organization. In my current professional capacity, I use my skills to support organizations in South Asia in their sustainability journey. In my personal capacity, I’m involved in various community service programs, ranging from education to animal welfare, rural empowerment to covid relief. In addition to this, my side hustles are a structured channel for me to inquisitively explore creativity and apply my problem-solving skills for environmental and social issues: 

  • The Inquisitive Lens - This is my creative outlet to share (i) my poems about various aspects of human emotions, (ii) the outcome of my experiment with different forms of art, (iii) life lessons from the world of art. 
  • Covid Action Lab, I’m a Co-founder and co-lead the NC Covid Relief response along with Akshat Garg. Here, we’ve been using social media, technical systems, and community engagements to streamline and amplify the reach of our covid relief effort.
  • The Impact Lens - This is an outlet to experiment with new methods to address world problems at a micro level. Currently, I’m experimenting with models of non-traditional agricultural methods to contribute to the cause of food security. 

You were a part of the Network Capital Community Building Fellowship, what got youto join? Let us know about your experience!

We are the community we build” is one of my preferred catchphrases. I have actually been part of multiple NC Fellowships - community building, writing, CEO and side hustle - each having 3 significant takeaways for me - 
  1. Cohort Based learning.
  2. Incremental and actionable steps.
  3. Tangible Outcomes and takeaways.

My coffee fundraising workshops “Behind Barista’s Bar” were a direct outcome of the fellowship. A self taught brewer, I had pursued coffee as a passion, but never as a monetizable venture. The community I built through the fellowships helped me overcome the initial hesitations, and helped me launch and find an audience for the project. Similarly with the writing fellowship I launched my newsletter The Politibrew - a newsletter aimed at helping understand our day to day news events better. 

Over the last few months I have been able to raise funds supporting
  • Small non-profits with ration for 500+ tribal families, 
  • Providing seed capital for 10 women affected by crisis start micro enterprises
  • Providing financial literacy modules for community champions with eventual goal of reaching 9000 beneficiaries and
  • Empowering a community health center with a medical fridge to ensure safe storage and low wastage of vaccines.
I’ve been part of the NC writing and side hustle fellowships. This was my first-hand experience at cohort-based learning, and I thoroughly enjoyed the course.
  1. Format - I liked the case study method, wherein Utkarsh gave a live example from his experience of writing for prestigious publications and building NC to convey fundamental concepts.
  2. Engagement - I particularly liked the interactive learning methodology; different fellows had different takes on topics. With the diversity in the background, it was interesting to learn about the multi-dimensional view.
  3. Fellows - The cohort was very smartly curated, and there were multiple learning opportunities, 
  4. On the spot feedback - After each presentation, Utkarsh, Varya and fellows shared live feedback, this was practical learning for me.
  5. Guest lectures - the opportunity to listen and interact with notable people and learn from their experience

Key takeaways
Writing: The fellowship was vital to understand the technicalities right from first drafts to pitching to a publication. Some of the key takeaways from Dr Anamika’s session:
  • Importance of looking at things to understand rather than imposing a personal judgement upfront.
  • Identify topics that one can easily connect with; it could be an issue that bothers one.
  • Ultimately write about personal observations with a desire to express rather than to impress. 

Side Hustle: The fellowship helped me understand the structure of how to identify and build side hustles. The key takeaway for me was to first focus on the quality of the product, aim to delight the customers, and not on the reach at the outset; having the first true fans is critical, and they would ultimately help champion the product to others.

Why do you do what you do today? - Tell us the backstory, how did you really get here?

We are in a society where challenges are emerging and evolving faster than we can solve them. While I continued to be engaged with social impact throughout school and college (I am an electrical engineer from Delhi College of Engineering by training), I decided to work in the non-profit space. I started working with community based NGOs, and soon graduated to focusing on bringing structural change. The inflection point was my time at SaveLIFE Foundation, where working with the state of Maharashtra, we achieved a 44% reduction in road crash fatalities on the Mumbai Pune Expressway. I then went on to work for the National Ministry to understand the policy process at the highest level. 

Any social situation is a chaotic one : conflicting agendas, multiple stakeholders, limited information, urgency of response and distributed ownership. My job, as a systems builder and administrator, is to enable a shared vision of success, and to harmonise the conflicting forces of change. 

Covid-19 relief was one such crisis. I joined the NC Covid response Whatsapp group as any other volunteer. I felt there was an opportunity to contribute towards structuring the response. 

Covid Action Lab was a result of our constant attempt to reduce the time lag between demand for a lead and a patient finding them. During the second wave the nature of the crisis was different from the first wave - it was fulfilling an inherent demand-supply mismatch. CAL started as a google sheet - a list of leads that was updated three times a day, and had the most reliable leads for oxygen and medicines available at the time. Soon people from across the country started to reach out, making me realise that the sheet had a significantly larger reach than anticipated - and we needed a more sturdy platform. This resulted in the CAL website being launched. As the situation evolved, the role of CAL also adapted to tackle the misinformation problem.  
While I do many things, fundamentally, I try to ask myself these questions (a)Does this fundamentally align with my values? (b) Is there a better way to do this? (c) Do I need to consult or delegate this to someone who's a better fit for this task? 

My backstory: At the start of the 2nd wave of Covid, I witnessed helplessness across social media and put together a blog with relevant covid resources at 2 am the following night. Through my network, the blog was able to support data queries of 2k+ people.

The same week, I joined the NC covid response WhatsApp groups as a volunteer and was able to help people through the NC network. In the first couple of days, I realised that with increasing cases and the manual duplication of effort required on WhatsApp and the blog, a dynamic community-driven platform was needed. I had recently got introduced to Discord through a social media course and realised that this was an ideal platform. Then I set up the NC covid discord server, and with continuous community feedback, set up multiple channels, right from ask the doctor to live Twitter feed, city, and mental health support channels. Parallelly, I connected with Akshat Garg, and we set up Covid Action Lab. CAL consists of a dynamic data repository and social media support for covid relief. Discord and CAL significantly helped reduce duplication of effort by experts and helped the NC covid community and beyond avail valuable information.

Mental health issues became evident at this juncture via the discord mental health wall; I realised that while we were helping covid patients, volunteers' mental well-being was paramount. This was when I connected with professionals via the NC network and set up mental health support for volunteers and covid affected. Another challenge that came up was on covid relief fundraisers. The prevalence of fraudulent asks was frustrating for all the volunteers; I worked closely with the team to implement and drive the fundraiser verification process.

You can only connect the dots in your life looking back. Knowing what you know today, has a career been planned or a function of serendipity? 

In most parts I would say it was consistent effort and micro-experiments that got connected due to serendipity. Over the years, I have started to see the importance of increasing our luck-surface area. It was impossible for me to predict that I would be here. At each stage, I tried to make the best decision I could, with whatever information I had at hand. 
At the age of 16, I had a broad idea that I wanted to work in sustainability; with that vision, I pursued Environmental Engineering. During my undergrad, I’d take time to feed my curiosity and experiment with my ideas via various internships and projects. I kept on experimenting and finally decided to pursue a career in Corporate sustainability. Fortunately, I had an opportunity in that domain through campus placement. I made the best of this role, explored different cultures, countries, and technologies, and worked globally. Then, during the first wave of the pandemic, my teenage dream of working with a developmental institute came back, and I started exploring roles in the development sector. Fortunately, I found an opening, researched about it and prepared for the interview, and made it. So I’d say it’s a combination of childhood dreams, continuously learning and upgrading my skill set and serendipity..
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