Vision Centres in the COVID-19 Era
Shubhrakanti Bhattacharya shares Mission for Vision’s experience in setting up a Vision Centre in Rayagada district, Odisha

The world is going through difficult times with the COVID-19 pandemic. India like many other countries has been badly affected. As of 3rd November 2020, the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases have crossed 8.31 million, moving it to 2nd position in terms of COVID-19 cases globally. Many industries have been adversely affected due to closure of businesses, job losses, salary cuts, etc. The eye health sector is no exception. Services of eye hospitals and vision centres had been partially or fully stopped due to the prevailing conditions. Community outreach activities have been fully stopped and could take a long time before being restored again. The footfall of patients has reduced drastically and the revenues have suffered a bitter setback. Smaller hospitals are struggling to survive in this situation.  

Experts across the country have repeatedly suggested that in these challenging times, Vision Centres (VC) could be a real game changer due to its dual benefits1. A VC provides quality primary eye care services at the doorsteps of the community on a daily basis and enables the service provider to maintain a regular contact with the community. The biggest advantage is that the VC sends a positive message into the community that the service provider is available to them during these difficult times. The nominal registration fees and the low-cost spectacles are pocket friendly for the community and generates the much-sought revenue for the service provider.  

In the midst of this ongoing pandemic, Mission for Vision (MFV) along with its partners have ensured continuation of eye health services to the community through its established network of VCs. At a time when the whole country was grappling with the pandemic scare and was trying to understand and accept the new normal in every sphere of life, MFV led the way in the eye health sector by launching a new VC in Sikarpai, Rayagada district of Odisha on 27th June 2020. Over the next three months MFV has launched 12 more VCs to raise its tally of VCs to 54 across 12 states of India. This was possible due to the continued support of MFV's partner hospitals and supporters. With this new VC, the total tally of VCs in the district now has reached to four. The other three VCs in the district are in Muniguda, Gunupur and Tikiri, all remote underserved locations. These VCs were closed for about a month and a half due to the lockdown and were among the first VCs in the MFV network to re-open in mid-May. Necessary safety protocols were developed and the VC staff were trained appropriately before restarting the VCs. 

However, as soon as they reopened, it became obvious how necessary this service was to the communities. The patient flow and the demand for spectacles started gradually rising each week. The two-pronged benefit of service to the community and revenue-generation for the service provider became immediately evident. The figures below provide a snapshot of the rising demand for the VC services during the first six months after the VCs reopened: 

The month of August shows a dip in overall performance of the VCs as the Tikiri VC had to be closed because the hospital where the VC is located, was declared as a COVID-19 treatment facility by the local administration. Local lockdowns were imposed in various parts of the district which affected the other VCs too. Even then, the overall patient footfalls in October 2020 show an increase of 92% as compared to that in May 2020. In terms of spectacles dispensed, the raise is 84% during the said period. The revenue generated through the sale of spectacles shows an increase of 79%.  Compared to the last six months of pre-COVID-19 period, the footfalls show an increase of 8%, the spectacle sales 29% and the revenue an increase of 11%.  

This enormous success has its roots in the well-thought planning and efforts of the VC management team of LVPEI and MFV who effectively used the time during the lockdown period. The significant steps which they followed were:  

  • Making phone calls to all the old patients of the vision centres, asking about their well-being and requesting them to come for a check-up once the VC reopens
  • Development of detailed protocols that should be mandatorily followed at the VCs to ensure safety for all staff and patients coming to the VCs
  • Arranging for required Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the staff
  • Rigorous training of the VC staff on the safety guidelines
  • Sanitisation of the VCs before reopening
  • Information to the local administration about reopening the VCs and that these were safe places to visit
  • Effective monitoring through WhatsApp video calls

MFV as a supportive project partner has played its role to ensure that the VCs should run smoothly. The major steps involved - 

  • Contingency plan developed and shared 
  • Supported partners with funds for procuring PPE
  • Adaptation Guidelines developed and shared 
  • Capacity building of partner staff 
  • IEC material developed and shared  
  • Regular interaction and sharing of learning
  • Increased monitoring and communication over audio visual platforms on a regular basis 

MFV believes that its experience with the VCs in Rayagada district of Odisha after the lockdown, will spread a positive message across the country to eye care providers and would help establish the enormous need of Vision Centres once again as a most appropriate step to provide quality primary eye care to the poor and underserved communities. 

MFV gratefully acknowledges the generous support of Standard Chartered Bank and Wen Giving Foundation towards the Personal Protective Equipment for the VC staff. The meticulous planning process of the VC management team of LVPEI and the positive decision making of the senior management to take forward the VC project in these difficult times is highly appreciated.  

About the Author:Shubhrakanti Bhattacharya is a Senior Manager with the Programme Development team at Mission for Vision. He is based in Kolkata and is responsible for managing the MFV initiatives in Odisha and the north-eastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Manipur, Meghalaya and Mizoram with different partners.