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Coronavirus warriors: Meet these sustainability experts who hew out viable COVID-19 isolation facilities

An innovative team led by Dr Anunaya Chaubey and Dr Miniya Chatterji of Anant National University creates temporary hospitals and isolation facilities in less than 5 days within vacant properties. The first one will welcome people flying back from the Gulf to Kerala this weekend.

June 02, 2020 / 11:50 AM IST

When a bunch of Indians fly in from the Gulf into the southern state of Kerala this Sunday, they will be whisked away to a fully kitted isolation centre that took under 5 days to be built. It is the handiwork of Dr Miniya Chatterji and Dr Anunaya Chaubey, and their team of innovators.

The times of unprecedented crises call for indigenous solutions. As India struggles to contain and treat the rising number of victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a mammoth need for creating isolation and recovery facilities and temporary hospitals.

The innovative team led by Dr Chaubey and Dr Chatterji of the Anant National University (AnantU) has devised a solution. Dr Chatterji is the director and founder for the Centre of Sustainability at the Ajay Piramal-led University, and CEO and founder of Sustain Labs Paris (a sustainability incubator), while Dr Chaubey is its Provost.

The idea is really simple: take an empty facility — a residential building, a commercial complex, a marriage or conference hall, “just about anything that is not a warehouse or an empty maidan and not very hygienic for such a healthcare facility, particularly for a disease that is respiratory in nature,” says Dr Chatterji — and kit it out into a fully equipped isolation centre.

Anunaya Chaubey. Dr Anunaya Chaubey.


COVID-19 Vaccine

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A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.

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In April, Health Ministry Joint Secretary Lav Agarwal announced that India needed 586 hospitals across the country as dedicated COVID-19 hospitals, and over 100,000 isolation beds. And that, too, may not be enough.

That’s when Dr Chaubey and Dr Chatterji connected the dots and came up with the idea of refurbishing buildings that are government, community or privately owned, to create temporary hospitals with ICUs.

“As a little background, I am working on a project with Anant National University to convert the campus into a sustainable one through my company, Sustain Labs Paris; I set it up some years ago and live between Paris and Goa. For AnantU, we also set up the Centre for Sustainability, a think-tank that offers sustainable development solutions. Over the last eight months, my team is working on research on vacant infrastructure in India. About 7.5 percent of India’s buildings lie vacant, even as people don’t have homes to live in,” she says.

A quarantine centre in Mumbai. A quarantine centre in Mumbai.

So when the pandemic sent the world into a panic, Dr Chaubey spoke to her about using the research to build isolation centres. That’s how Dr Chatterji and her team began working on a detailed 360-degree plan and made a proposal to the Prime Minister’s Office when India just had 300 cases. “Going by what was happening across the world, I knew the numbers would explode. Indian cities have huge slums or congested underprivileged neighbourhoods and social distancing is impossible,” Dr Chatterji says.

Miniya Chatterji. Dr Miniya Chatterji.

While the Thiruvananthapuram facility is about to open, the AnantU team is working with the BMC in Mumbai on another 100-bed facility in Najam Baug, a vast economically disadvantaged pocket in the central area, as well as creating some infrastructure for an isolation facility in St Xavier’s College, Mumbai. Her next project is an isolation centre coming up in Kesar Baug, in Dongri, another congested Mumbai neighbourhood. Dr Chatterji works with an extensive team of medical professionals, sustainability experts, urban planners, built environment professionals and designers associated with Piramal’s AnantU.

Dr Chaubey says, “Being a design thinking university, we are always seeking solutions for problems. Faced with the corona crisis, AnantU responded fast with answers: visors and recovery spaces: prevention and treatment. We found a sustainable prototype in cardboard beds that would allow for scaling up and for wider impact across regions. Such innovations, both tangible and intangible, define thinking and an impactful educational institution. The idea was to use our education to solve problems through design thinking.”

The ingenious design

The implementation plan submitted to the PMO includes layouts for different spaces along with divisions for the following categories of patients — asymptomatic but tested positive for COVID-19, patients with mild symptoms, patients with moderate symptoms, and patients with severe symptoms.

The AnantU team has collaborated with Parliamentarians with Innovators for India, a National COVID-19 Action Group of parliamentarians, organisations and experts set up in April. “We acquired a 3,500sq.ft conference hall in Thiruvananthapuram and converted it into a 20-bed temporary hospital for moderate cases, equipped with everything you need, including an oxygen set-up. It is seven minutes away from a hospital and any person who turns critical can be shifted,” she says.

The central idea was to be experimental and create effective infrastructure at a fraction of the cost. Dr Chatterji worked with AnantU faculty to design laminated, corrugated, cardboard fowler beds. (as the entire team contributed). “The virus stays for a much shorter time on a cardboard laminated bed than a metal bed,” she says.

Dhaval Monani, the former visiting fellow at IDFC Institute and the founder and Managing Director of First Home Realty Solutions Pvt. Ltd., which builds affordable housing, discovered a manufacturer in Rajkot who began making those beds within a day. Habitat for Humanity, a pan-India NGO, is working on the ground to implement the plan along with government authorities.

Dhaval Monani. Dhaval Monani.

“We experimented with a lot of necessary infrastructures to try and manufacture them cheaply,” says Dr Chatterji. “For instance, the cupboard next to a patient’s bed, called the medicine box, costs Rs 1,500 in the market. We brought them at a cost of Rs 300. A normal fowler bed costs Rs 3,500 to 5,000. Our laminated cardboard bed costs Rs 1,300. This kind of economic model will allow us to scale up quickly without spending too much.” Each quarantine unit will cost approximately Rs 5,200, and that includes a bed, a mattress, a medicine box and separators between different beds.

Cardboard Bed - 1

For now, these temporary hospitals and isolation centres will not have ventilators, though they have a complete oxygen set-up. “If need be, we can buy one or two ventilators. We have spoken to a manufacturer to buy it at the lowest cost possible, at Rs 110,000, whereas a ventilator in the market costs Rs 200,000. The research on ventilators is shifting very quickly in case of COVID, with many doctors concluding that most patients don’t require one. But we will ensure that there are medical facilities with enough ventilators close to the centres, just in case they are needed.”

The implementation plan also involves the government offering incentives to private builders who volunteer their vacant properties for isolation and recovery facilities. The government is offering them credits on TDR, which is equal in value to that of the property they temporarily hand over for the centres.


While the Thiruvananthapuram and Najam Baug facilities have been set up as an ideal model, with money spent by AnantU, the BMC is paying for the St Xaviers centre’s infrastructure and the Kesar Baug facility. “We are designing, manufacturing and implementing the plan at the lowest cost possible, while the Habitat for Humanity has its people on their ground to implement it.”

Dr Chatterji, who has worked as a policy analyst to former President of France, Jacques Chirac; an investment banker and hedge fund manager at Goldman Sachs in London; and the Chief Sustainability Officer at Jindal Steel in India, besides being a speaker at Davos, sees this as her most challenging project. “My work in sustainability is to find interesting solutions to problems with socio-economic fallout,” she says. “The pandemic requires more of us to come up with scalable solutions that are also economically viable and sustainable.”

Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.

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Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.
first published: May 15, 2020 12:14 pm
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