The Big Picture: Narratives of Mobilizers and Mobilizations

uOttawa Community Initiatives and Their Role in Fighting COVID-19

Michael Johnson, July 2020

The outbreak of Coronavirus and the ensuing pandemic has created a truly unique and worldwide set of challenges.  The scope and impact of this outbreak has surpassed even the most dramatic of expectations, leaving communities struggling to meet completely unprecedented and unexpected new areas of need while also highlighting pre-existing issues through the renewed stress caused by the pandemic.  In order to help address these areas of need, members of the community have mobilized in various ways as issues have arisen.  Within the Ottawa community, many such mobilizations have been based out of the University of Ottawa.  Mobilizations by various groups with ties to the university have proved invaluable in the Ottawa pandemic response and have shown incredible resourcefulness in identifying areas of need and mobilizing existing resources to address these issues.  Various groups composed of both students and faculty have risen to the occasion and set out to help develop and mobilize resources within the community.  While some groups, such as Bag Half Full YOW and uOttawa MD Students Sourcing PPE, have developed without any pre-existing infrastructure in order to form completely new organizations, other groups including the Center for Entrepreneurship and Engineering Design (CEED) have built upon existing faculties in order to adapt other resources to meet the demands of the pandemic.  These three initiatives, in addition to many others like them, have identified diverse areas of need and have taken very different approaches in helping to address them.  Relying heavily on volunteers and students, these organizations have had to be creative and flexible in their attempts to organize and address their respective areas of need.  Despite following different paths to obtain different ends these three initiatives exemplify how anyone can help make a meaningful difference in addressing the needs of their community, and their stories provide valuable lessons that may prove invaluable to other initiatives as they attempt to help address the needs of their own community.

Bag Half Full YOW

The Bag Half Full YOW initiative was created by 4 students from the uOttawa medical school as a means to help provide high-risk individuals a safe way to access groceries and other essentials without having to expose themselves to the public.  The Ottawa chapter, founded by Sam Buchannan, Lindsey Symonds, Carlyn McNeilly and Isaac Kim of the uOttawa medical school, was inspired by the organizations Edmonton counterpart Bag Half Full YEG.  While the two organizations are not formally affiliated, the four uOttawa students were able to identify a similar need within their own community and reached out to the Edmonton chapter for help getting the organization up and running.  Founder and the organization’s volunteer coordinator Isaac Kim stated that the Edmonton chapter provided templates and advice in the initial stages of the Ottawa chapter’s life, but the two groups began operating relatively autonomously from one another within two weeks.

Having identified a local need, the initiative began to create a centralized infrastructure using Google Drive to begin coordinating driver schedules, grocery orders and volunteer signup sheets.  Using a combination of word of mouth, social media direct calls to media organizations and community health centers, the group spread word of its services within the Ottawa community.  Volunteers with the organization operate with a high degree of autonomy, choosing which deliveries to sign up for and at what times they are available to do so, and the initiative has relied on the good will of it’s volunteers while utilizing community donations in order to reimburse volunteers for travel expenses.  In this way, the community has stepped up big time.  With over 300 deliveries completed, there have been less than 5 instances in which an order has been unable to be filled in a timely manner.  According to Isaac Kim, the biggest area of concern for the group has been in the sheer volume of demand they have faced.  Isaac claims that the organization has stumbled across a need that reaches well beyond the confines of the pandemic.  With the majority of the groups clients being elderly people with impaired mobility, who are often retired and unable to afford the steep fees associated with most grocery delivery services, many clients had indicated that they struggled to get groceries well before Covid-19.  While the organization has so far managed to keep ahead of the demand, Isaac confirmed that this may become a bigger issue in the future.  As he stated it, “Most volunteers are students or part-time helpers, which works well in summer and pandemic but will need to be addressed in the fall as most volunteers become busier with school.”.

In addition to the volunteer demand, the four medical students who organized the initiative will also be taking a step back as the school year takes off.  Due to the high volume of demand for the services offered by Bag Half Full YOW, they hope to continue operations, and have begun indoctrinating 5 new student volunteers who will eventually take over the administrative functions of the organization.  In addition, the Ottawa chapter of Bag Half Full has undergone talks with a local community health center (who will not be named due to privacy concerns) about the possibility of absorbing the function of the initiative and continuing to provide free delivery services to those in need within the Ottawa community.

uOttawa MD Students Sourcing PPE

Yet another initiative to come out of the uOttawa medical school in order to help meet the demands of the pandemic, the uOttawa MD Students Sourcing PPE sought to help alleviate the demand for Personal Protective Equipment that plagued nursing homes and Ottawa hospitals.  The organization was one of the first to launch in response to the pandemic shutdown.  This particular organization began within a group chat for uOttawa medical students, where students who were aware of the PPE shortage recognized an untapped resource of PPE from other businesses that had been forced to close their doors during the crisis.  They began by organizing volunteers to call every business within Ottawa that may have PPE available, including hair salons, para health groups and construction companies, and then proceeded to arrange drivers to pick up the equipment in order to redistribute it as needed.  The group sought to collect PPE including hand sanitizer, googles, protective coverings, respirator masks and more as they attempted to help hospitals and nursing homes where they’re demand exceeded the available stores of these resources.

While the organizers of this particular initiative were not available for interview, Isaac Kim was able to provide a bit of personal experience with the group, having volunteered with them doing both cold calls and PPE pickups.  According to Isaac, the organization has cooled off in the last few weeks and has become significantly less active.  However, that has been more a result of the organization’s success than anything else.  In the immediate onset of the pandemic, demand for PPE was at it’s highest as hospitals were underprepared for the spike in cases.  Due to the limited amount of extra PPE within Ottawa to redistribute, as well as the significantly reduced demand as hospitals and nursing homes become less overwhelmed and are able to reuse PPE, this particular group served it’s most vital role in the early days of the pandemic.  The group’s impact in the early days of the pandemic provided vital relief for overrun medical centers within Ottawa.  The group sought to bridge the gap between the understocked supply of PPE and the massive demand brought on by the pandemic and proved very successful. In combination with over 130 community groups and businesses, they have been able to reallocate 3249 N95 masks, 3810 KN95 masks, 35103 other face masks, over 173900 surgical gloves and 284 L of hand sanitizer.

uOttawa Covid-19 PPE

Another initiative looking to tackle the massive PPE shortage facing Ottawa hospitals and nursing homes, the uOttawa Covid-19 PPE initiative emerged from the Center for Entrepreneurship and Engineering Design (CEED) at the University of Ottawa’s Makerspace facility.  This initiative was founded as members of CEED took notice of the effect of the pandemic on PPE supply in other nations around the world and took preemptive measures.  Having seen how makers in Italy had been able to significantly aid in relieving PPE shortages by making face shields, they began reaching out to hospitals and slowly started building and optimizing a few different shield designs.  One they received approval for certain designs from Health Canada, they were then able to trial some designs at Ottawa hospitals for feedback before further developing their designs  They then began streamlining production of face shields and masks, and have even corresponded with overseas makers and organizations in need.  While they initially began trials of their mask designs at Montfort hospital, after about 2 weeks they were able to expand and advertise their designs on social media which led to other organizations, including various long term care homes, reaching out to indicate a need and request PPE donations.  As the word spread, individuals with 3D printers began reaching out and offering to produce specific parts for the masks which volunteer delivery drivers would then pick up, store in isolation for 5 days as part of a sanitation protocol and then deliver to be made into masks.  The volunteer drivers further offered support delivering finalized masks orders and supply runs.  One of the organizers of the initiative and a staff member at the facility, Midia Shikh Hassan called the organization’s success was a truly communal effort. Midia further explained that they have seen volunteers from a variety of demographics and have even received support from corporations and local organizations.

As the initiative grew, they were able to optimize production and introduce new mask designs which are more adept for specific conditions, as well as designs made of alternative materials in order to account for material availability.  The initiative went from producing roughly 200 face shields per day while receiving around 100-150 from community members to producing between 250-280 face shields every day. The finalized designs from the group have been uploaded online in free downloadable formats, which are open to editing, to facilitate worldwide free access so that anyone can produce these masks worldwide as well as tweak their designs to function better within their environment.   The organization has relied on material and financial donations to keep up a steady stream of production.

Just as the uOttawa Students Sourcing PPE initiative has quieted down following a reduced demand, the uOttawa Covid-19 PPE initiative has seen a rapid decline in orders.  According to Midia, the demand was initially fairly difficult to meet following the onset of the pandemic, but as the number of new cases falls and the supply of usable PPE increases there are fewer orders to fill.  As all the PPE produced by this group is reusable, the need to equip hospitals has shrunk to the point where volunteers have been asked to temporarily stop printing masks and shields, albeit while remaining vigilant in case further waves of pandemic exacerbate the need once again.  As it currently stands, the group was able to produce roughly 10100 face shields in total and has had a huge impact in assisting hospitals and care centers throughout the crisis.  As demand reduces, this organization appears to have obtained its goal, and the designs are now prepared and readily available should they ever be needed.

Notable Lessons

A notable similarity shared by all three student organizations has been their ability to identify a need, and to accurately determine the scope of that need.  While there is often incentive and desire amongst organizers of new initiatives to attempt to constantly keep growing and expanding their reach, this ability to identify when an organization has achieved what it set out to do is vital.  With groups such as Bag Half Full YOW, the services they offer have tapped into a need which is unlikely to disappear, and so continued operations and further building of the initiative remain important.  By identifying that their services will remain in demand and continuing to look for how to continue to offer those services once school and a return to work deplete their volunteer pool, Bag Half Full YOW is able to continue to build off it’s early momentum and continue to help address an existing need.  In contrast, both uOttawa Covid-19 PPE and uOttawa MD Students Sourcing PPE have seen the need they sought to address disappear.  With PPE stocks now much less strained, the initial shortage caused by the immediate onset of the pandemic has more or less been resolved.  In both cases, the organizations have been able to address this dwindling demand appropriately.  With the local resource of redistributable PPE having been tapped, as well as much less shortages of PPE for healthcare workers, uOttawa MD Students Sourcing PPE has scaled back on it’s active drives for PPE.  Having recognized that their goal was met and there is no longer much need, they have been able to recognize that their initiative has more or less run it’s course.  Similarly, the organizers of uOttawa Covid-19 PPE have called off volunteer production due to a reduced demand.  Having helped fill the initial shortage, this organization is able to continue to address the dwindling need for PPE production whilst avoiding excessively producing unnecessary PPE.  This organization has scaled back to conserve resources, but has kept it’s infrastructure in place in order to step in should another spike reignite the need.

Another area of note is the different ways each of the initiatives were formed.  While uOttawa Covid-19 PPE was able to emerge from a preexisting organization in order to utilize existing infrastructure and equipment to help address the need, both of the other groups were also able to organize without any pre-existing institutions.  Groups of likeminded individuals, particularly students from the medical school, were able to mobilize and make meaningful differences without any pre-existing infrastructure or resources.  The Bag Half Full YOW initiative was successful in this regard to the point where they are in talks of being picked up and run by an existing organization in order to continue filling their need.  They are currently looking at the possibility of merging into existing infrastructure now in order to ensure continuity in face of a massive need.  The uOttawa MD Students Sourcing PPE and the Bag Half Full YOW initiatives show that even without access to established infrastructures it is possible to mobilize community resources in order to address community issues, while the CEED initiative provides an example of how existing institutions can mobilize to address pressing needs.  In each case, the initiatives examined identified an area of need that they could help address with the resources available to them, and built an initiative that addressed the issues they were best equipped to take on.

However you look at it, none of these initiatives would have been nearly as successful in their respective goals without a true community mobilization to support them.  The Bag Half Full YOW initiative, helped out of the gate by an existing chapter in Edmonton, was able to provide a massive amount of relief for high risk people in quarantine by assisting in their ability to safely get groceries, and they could not have done so without the help and support of their community volunteer drivers.  The uOttawa Covid-19 PPE has relied on an extremely collaborative makers community as well as the generous donations and volunteer support and has been able to produce a massive supply of much-needed PPE and free 3D-printable PPE designs as a result.  uOttawa MD Students Sourcing PPE sought to facilitate donations of PPE and made use of volunteer drivers to help acquire and redistribute PPE as needed.  The organizers of these initiatives each sought to help their community through a time of crisis, and the Ottawa community responded to their call.  The initiatives formed out of the University of Ottawa community have played key roles in supporting the Ottawa community throughout the crisis, and have been able to make meaningful differences in a period of uncertainty.

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