A woman in a manufacturing site

Stories of solidarity

No act is too small in the fight against COVID-19

Published 06 April 2020, updated 29 June 2020

In this time more than ever, even our smallest actions as individuals can have great meaning, helping us connect and move forward in times of crisis. COVID-19 is changing our world, but instead of breaking us apart, it has the potential to unite.

Across our organisation, some resourceful employees are taking the opportunity to support and protect those who are on the frontlines, the vulnerable and those in need − using whatever tools are available to them.

Budapest, Hungary
Two Roche colleagues who had trained as doctors volunteer at Hungary’s biggest COVID-19 treatment centre and inspire others to do whatever they can.

Janos Santha reading a medical text
Janos Santha reacquainting himself at the hospital

Levente Molnar and Janos Santha are both doctors by training and work in Roche Pharma Hungary. A few weeks ago, with the number of COVID-19 cases rising in the country, the country’s biggest pulmonology centre asked volunteers to join the frontline staff to manage the situation. These two Roche doctors could not stay away from this call to help those most in need. They decided to approach the hospital and asked to register as volunteers with the full support of their teams and their leadership team.

The Koranyi National Pulmonology Institute in Budapest put up a Facebook in mid-March calling upon volunteers to join the doctors and other staff on the frontlines. A week later Levente had signed up, and over the Easter weekend, Janos joined his Roche colleague. The centre offers both COVID and non-COVID related patient care, but it is the designated centre for those taken ill by the coronavirus with 70 beds with ventilators and another 80 for those who had tested positive. 

“The doctors and nurses are grateful for any kind of help they can get during these extremely stressful times. They provide regular and quick feedback, so you can learn and do better every day,” says Levente. “After a month of being at the pulmonology centre I realised that I could help not only with my medical knowledge, but also with things that I had learned during our agile transformation process in Roche over the past year. This included visualising and summarising problems and procedures, IT solutions, and connecting colleagues in Diagnostics with local doctors.”

Speaking about his ongoing experience as a volunteer, Janos explains: “While working in a hospital previously as a medical doctor, I was in a different speciality all together. The ICU is a very different place and obviously, my experience of working there was limited. But the doctors were willing to share their knowledge and gave suggestions on how we could optimise processes. I arrived at the hospital two weeks after Levente and he was able to highlight areas on which I could focus my attention. This freed up the time of the specialists in the ICU.”

In Roche Levente, worked as a Medical Manager for GU-GI cancer and Foundation Medicine, before taking on the role of Medical Value Driver this January for personalised healthcare and FMI as part of the Healthcare Innovation squad. Janos on the other hand is a Medical Manager for Lung Cancer, and has strong connections with doctors at the Koranyi Institute. While Levente worked in anaesthesiology and intensive care before joining Roche, Janos practised as an orthopaedic surgeon.

Levente Molnar at the hospital
Levente Molnar at the hospital

Learning everyday

In the initial phase, both had to quickly adapt and learn about the hygiene guidelines in the ICU. But most of the learning was on the job and responding to emergencies and needs that cropped up each day. Levente had the opportunity to refresh his intensive care skills. They would like to work at least until the end of May, though they are quite willing to go on further if there is a need. For now, their work at Roche is shared among considerate colleagues, while some projects have been kept on hold. In fact, for the past few days, the two of them have returned to work for a part of their time at Roche.

Levente remembers the day he had to work with the team to assemble the ventilators that had come in from China. “It took us a few hours to start assembling everything as the documents were not all complete. But our experience with Ikea and Lego came in really handy at that point. We were soon able to get the ventilators up and running,” he says. Janos points to his more recent experiences with Roche where for the past few months the whole organisation was busy with the transformation process. “Fast-forward to my start at Koranyi, and we were back to our flipcharts and brainstorming and discussing solutions for problems that the team was encountering in the hospital. Some of the hospital team were not accustomed to using apps and participating in intense output driven sessions, but soon they were willing not just to take part but learn how to use these tools in the future.”

These two doctor volunteers have served as an inspiration for colleagues across the Roche Hungary organisation. Over 12 of them have supported the Koranyi Institute’s efforts by providing IT expertise, clinical trials, donations and funding, and setting up connections with teams abroad to share experiences. Diagnostics colleagues pitched in by handing over two cobas machines for blood gas analysis. They also provided hotspots for Wi-Fi connections where not available. Good deeds inspiring others to do their bit as well.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
To keep them safe, colleagues are working with hospitals to provide frontline staff treating COVID-19 patients with personal protection equipment.

Healthcare workers on their computers
PPE is helping frontline healthcare providers stay safe

A healthcare crisis brings unprecedented challenges but is also a test of the willingness of different organisations to collaborate and fight it together. It is vital that governments get the support of partners across the spectrum of the healthcare delivery chain. Roche Vietnam played such a key role when it collaborated with the two main hospitals in the country looking after COVID-19 patients. Plans are now afoot to expand this collaboration to other hospitals and cities.

“The Tropical hospitals in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are the two main sites treating patients with COVID-19 in Vietnam. Between them they are treating almost 70% of cases in the country, especially the most severe ones,” explains Ho Bao Long – Medical Manager at Roche Vietnam. “There has been a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in Vietnam since February. This became a very serious issue on 19 March, when experts realised that there were cases of cross-infection within one of the hospitals. They raised the alarm bells not just among the staff working in the hospitals, but also the government, and there was an urgent call to source more PPEs in order to stop more frontline healthcare providers treating COVID-19 from getting the infection.” 

This spurred the team in Roche Vietnam to action. “We talked to the hospitals to find out more about the situation and check on what their current demand-supply situation was. We knew that this was an urgent need for the bigger hospitals as most cases were being admitted there,” adds Trang Ngo – Communications Manager at Roche Vietnam. The hospitals gave us an estimate of their requirements based on the number of frontline staff treating COVID-19 patients directly, the ICU admissions and the estimated number of confirmed cases expected in the coming days. The Roche affiliate worked with a qualified local supplier to make available 1,100 PPEs for the two main hospitals. 

“This supplier was recommended to us by the hospitals to ensure that we were able to provide the right type and right quality of PPE that the doctors were actually using in order to avoid waste. We worked very closely with the supplier while sourcing the equipment, as there were quite a few logistical challenges with the supply chain due to social distancing and lockdown measures,” says Trang Ngo.

Employees pitching in

Besides, Roche employees in Vietnam volunteered to produce over 1,000 face shields to donate to frontline healthcare workers in specialised fields also. Within one weekend, 20 employees and their family members teamed up and made protective face shields and supplied them quickly to frontline healthcare workers.  At the start of the pandemic, the Roche Vietnam team organised a blood donation campaign in February. An appeal had gone out from the hospitals stating they were experiencing a high demand for blood due to COVID-19 admissions and donations had begun dropping because of social distancing measures. The team is now also working with different kidney patient associations to help provide thousands of medical masks for dialysis patients in about ten hospitals nationwide as they are vulnerable to the coronavirus and have no choice but to go to hospitals weekly for dialysis.

The team has had many memorable and emotional experiences with hospital staff and patients. “One of the most memorable was when we went to the Tropical Hospital in Ho Chi Minh City to donate PPEs for the frontline doctors. We spoke to the Head of Infectious Diseases and he got emotional while sharing how hard the last two months had been for him and his team. He had been worried for his team when reports came in that frontline workers in one hospital in Vietnam had the infection. He was appreciative of our efforts to provide him with the right PPEs, which would help them focus on the patient,” Trang recalls, with a sense of fulfilment.

Singapore
Roche colleagues distributed 10,000 fruit packs to frontline healthcare staff to say thank you.

A box of fruit ready for delivery
Fruit delivery

Singapore has had its own challenges when dealing with the country’s outbreak and spread of the coronavirus. As in many countries around the world the frontline staff in the country’s hospitals and clinics have played an outstanding role. But this wasn’t always easy.

“In the initial stages of the COVID-19 outbreak, healthcare workers were shunned by a section of the public for fear of the virus. Following the government’s call to show our support to the healthcare workers, a few of us in Roche began chatting via WhatsApp and started asking what we could do to show our support and appreciation,” recalls Serene Lee, Customer Experience Lead.

After many conversations, a group of employees decided that they would focus on public healthcare institutions, infectious diseases specialists and general practitioners (GPs). “We explored many different options ranging from Vitamin C, healthy snacks, masks, hand sanitisers, coffee, bubble tea, fruit sorbet among others.

But while some were ruled out for practical reasons, other ideas had to be let go of for lack of supplies. We finally decided to hand out packs of whole fruits high in Vitamin C,” explains Ryan Harper, General Manager. Ryan continues: “This was done with the intention of boosting the immunity of the healthcare workers or for them to bring the packs home to share with their loved ones, with whom they were getting very little time.” Till date more than 10,000 fruit packs have been delivered to public hospitals and polyclinics.

From helping to design the “Thank you” sticker to coordinating sourcing of fruits and helping with carting, carrying and delivery of the fruit packs, it has been an employee-driven endeavour. It took the team at Roche Pharma Singapore less than three weeks from the initial conversations until the first deliveries on 4 March. There were challenges along the way. The local compliance rules are extremely strict and forbids gifts to healthcare professionals. This was a first of its kind and the discussions with local Compliance focused more on the gesture and the overall intent of showing appreciation before approvals were granted.

It also was not easy to get so many fruits all at once. “Our preferred fruit vendor was unable to supply the volumes we needed and recommended a wholesaler instead. This was a bit of a concern, as it needed more compliance assessments and approvals from Finance and Procurement. It worked out well in the end. When the wholesaler found out what we were doing, they decided to chip in and provide higher quality options while maintaining the initially quoted prices,” says Poh Wee Pin, Customer Value & Innovation Chapter Lead.

Happy nurses and doctors with their fruit
Happy nurses and doctors with their fruit packs (photo taken on 12 Mar 2020, before Circuit Breaker)

How are the fruit packs being distributed?

So far, the packs of fruits have been distributed to six of the ten public hospitals. All planned 22 polyclinics have received their deliveries. There are plans to distribute another 5,000 packs, but these are currently on hold with the government recently announcing movement restrictions. These beneficiaries would include 19 infectious disease specialist centres and 1,200 GPs.

It is up to the hospitals and clinics to decide to whom the fruit packs are distributed. “We have seen them being distributed to doctors, nurses, pharmacists, office staff, security guards and cleaners. All involved in the frontline against COVID-19. We couldn’t be happier,” points out Andrew Chia, Value Partner.

Argentina, Costa Rica, Peru and Uruguay
COVID-19 has significantly increased demand for blood, putting a strain on the supply. Employees across Latin America rallied to set up and participate in blood donation campaigns.

The COVID-19 pandemic has significantly increased blood demand, leading to a supply crisis that is tied to the current social distancing and stay-at-home measures. In response, Roche teams across Latin America came together to meet this need.

In Argentina, Costa Rica, Peru and Uruguay, more than 150 employees and their families have participated in blood drives, benefiting more than 300 patients with severe diseases that required urgent blood infusions. In markets such as Uruguay, Roche developed an internal campaign to motivate employees to donate, and also provided free transportation for those willing to donate.

Woman donating blood in South America
More than 150 employees and their families have participated in blood drives.

“As we all navigate this critical public health emergency, it is crucial that we lend our support in any way we can. We identified the strong need to support blood banks in many of our markets, as supply is critical for many patients with chronic conditions, By coming together as OneRoche, we were able to contribute as a team and make a difference in our communities,” says Dr María Julia Caffaro, Hematology, Roche Argentina.

Peru
To alleviate the local health system overwhelmed with growing COVID-19 cases, Roche partnered with the Peruvian Ministry of Health to support its public telehealth platform.

Peru is among the Latin American countries most affected since the outbreak. The growing surge of new patients required additional medical services and staff to advise the population on how to identify potential COVID-19 symptoms and know what to do in case they test positive while staying at home.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we knew we had a role to play in alleviating health systems and supporting the national response to the pandemic. With this in mind, we acted as a champion and decided to foster a partnership with Smart Doctor, an initiative launched by the Ministry of Health, that provides telehealth services to the general population,” says Jürgen Shosinsky, General Manager, Roche Pharma Peru.

Doctor talking to a patient via screen
Over 1800 physicians in Peru provide telemedicine services to around 200 to 300 patients per day.

Boosting telehealth

Smart Doctor is a startup created to democratise healthcare access through real-time telemedicine services. In 2020, it became the official platform of the Health Ministry of Peru and the first public-private medical telehealth provider in the country. All citizens registered in the public healthcare system can install the app on any smartphone or computer, create an account through a national phone line and request virtual appointments with an expert.

With over 1800 physicians who support around 200 to 300 patients per day, expecting to reach one million per month, Smart Doctor and Roche Peru are also working to expand healthcare capacity in the country, providing support to communities in remote areas, through personalised chats and video calls.

“We believe in the power of innovation to better serve our patients and are proud of supporting the digital transformation of the Peruvian healthcare system, together with the government and the startup community. We hope that these solutions will continue to help us overcome today’s challenges and build more resilient health systems for the future,” says Jürgen.

Monza, Italy
250 employees from Roche Italy volunteered to support the government’s COVID-19 call centre to answer questions from Italian citizens. Three of them share their experience.

Benedetta answering calls for the government’s COVID-19 call centre
Benedetta answering calls

Benedetta Pellati, Event Management Coordinator in Roche Diagnostics Italy

“When Roche announced the volunteer programme and asked if we felt like participating, I didn’t hesitate. I have volunteered all my life and my family is quite used to me engaging in some such activities.

After an initial training course, with daily updates from the ministry of health and from Roche, we were split into shifts. Each shift lasts four hours every day, and for now will go on throughout the month of April.

The experience has really been a great learning and at times an emotional experience. Before hanging up, an 82-year-old woman asked me if she could call the toll-free number again. Her motivation? To talk to me again....”

Ilaria answering calls for the government’s COVID-19 call centre
“You get deeply involved with every single story you listen to”, says Ilaria

Ilaria Morandi, assistant in the office of the General Manager in Roche Pharma Italy

“I did not know until I started this extraordinary experience how deeply you get involved with every single story you listen to on the phone. You feel a special sense of responsibility as the person calling is expecting an important answer from you. That person needs a reassuring voice, a simple answer or a structured one. Most importantly, the person is simply asking to be heard and be supported.”

Barbara answering calls for the government’s COVID-19 call centre
“People are thankful that somebody listens to them”, says Barbara

Barbara Olivieri, Public Affairs and Communications Office of Roche Diabetes Care Italy

“The possibility of contributing, however small, moved me to join the volunteering team. I have received calls about all kinds of topics associated with the coronavirus.

We get words of appreciation and gratitude from the people. They are thankful that someone even answered their call and listened to them. We also created a spontaneous WhatsApp chat with some of the volunteers where we share information from connection problems to the types of questions we get to answer every day. It gives us a sense of belonging to a bigger family.”

London, United Kingdom
Ciara thought her pharmacy days were behind her, but in the midst of a crisis she was compelled to do something more.

Ciara helping out at the local pharmacy
Ciara helping out at her local pharmacy

“I am a registered pharmacist, but currently I work as a Medical Manager in the UK Affiliate. I joined Roche shortly after gaining my pharmacist qualification and thought I would never look back to my retail pharmacy days. However, we are in unprecedented times and eight straight days of working from home alone, I was inspired (or maybe delirious) to do more to support the COVID-19 efforts.

Nearly everything has been affected by the pandemic situation and the NHS put a call out to help wherever you can. Before I could talk myself out of it, I took the ‘think global, act local’ approach and phoned my local community pharmacy first thing on a Thursday morning.

Knowing how pressured the NHS front line was, I didn’t think I’d get through on the first try. When I did, I garbled out that I was a local pharmacist who wanted to volunteer in any capacity. To my own surprise, they were so grateful.

That same afternoon, I found myself crossing the dispensary boundary for the first time in five years. Although many things have changed, many things have stayed the same and I was able to help immediately. Simply unpacking deliveries, assembling prescriptions and operating the till relieved the pharmacy team and allowed us to focus on meeting the increased healthcare needs of the community.

I will admit – it makes me feel good that I still have the knowledge and skills to get back on the front line and to be doing as much as I can in this time of need. It’s also inspiring to be working alongside colleagues in a different sector. This pharmacy team is wonderful and truly resilient in the face of this pandemic continuing to do their best to serve the community.

I would encourage anyone who has the means, capacity and ability to consider how you can offer your services locally in contribution to the delivery of healthcare at this time.”

Madrid, Spain
Iria saw an opportunity to use her 3-D printer to save lives in the fight against COVID-19, so she started printing face shields for local hospitals.

Iria holding up a finished face shield
Iria showing her finished product

“I work as a Senior Project Manager at Roche Pharma Madrid. In Spain more than 10,000 health care professionals have tested positive for coronavirus and there is fear that those who have not been tested could be spreading it further.

As we all know there is a big shortage of protective gear in hospitals around the world.

I am part of one of the many self-organised groups of volunteers with a 3D printer at home. We made an agreement with the local Town Hall to print face shields at home two times per week. We then disinfect the most recent batch, put them in a sealed bag and take it to the nearest pharmacy. Finally, the local police will pick them up and deliver the bags to different hospitals around Madrid.

So far, from our very small local group, we have produced and sent to hospitals 1,336 face shields as of today. This is just a temporary ‘fix’, but we will keep printing 24/7 until we are not needed anymore.

And this is a call out for those of you with a 3D printer at home: you can help your city by printing face shields. Together we are stronger!”

Brussels, Belgium
Anne heard about a shortage of facemasks, so she jumped in to contribute to her country’s COVID-19 efforts by stitching masks for healthcare workers.

Hand sewn facemasks for healthcare workers
Facemasks for a good cause

If ever there was proof that one need not be at the frontline of battling the coronavirus, but could make a difference in their own little way then this small effort from a colleague in Belgium should count as one. Anne Peers works in Finance in Roche Pharma Belgium. When the COVID-19 outbreak took roots in her country and she, like most other colleagues, began working from home on 16 March, she wondered how she could make a difference. Several news reports alluded to the shortage of masks for healthcare workers. Anne knew what she had to do.

“There is a huge shortage of masks in Belgium for healthcare workers and others working in the postal service, day-care centres and shops. I saw a report that said that homemade masks could help a bit in these circumstances. I had a sewing machine, some fabric and elastic and first stitched three masks for a colleague who was afraid of contamination. It was then that I actually decided to make more,” says Anne.

It was a first for her. Anne found a tutorial on the internet and that was how she learned to make her first mask. Soon enough she roped in her 18-year-old son Thomas, a university student and someone involved with youth and community projects. “I thought it might be a good idea to keep him away from Netflix and social media for a few hours. I asked him if he could help with cutting the fabric and elastic and then ironing the mask when complete. He was very enthusiastic,” Anne shares.

Each mask took Anne about 20-30 minutes to make. I was able to dedicate quite some time to it over the weekend and at the end, she had completed 50 masks.

Now she cannot stop. Anne hopes to do this all over again this coming weekend. However, there seems to be a tiny problem. While in most places masks are in short supply, she is facing a shortage of another kind. Elastic. There is not much going around and she is finding it difficult to source some of the material that is so essential to making masks. Nevertheless, she is committed to finding that elastic and getting back to the sewing machine.

Tags: People, Society, We are Roche