How healthcare cooperatives are making a difference during the COVID-19 crisis

20 Jun 2020

On 17 June the International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) and the International Health Cooperative Organisation (IHCO) hosted the webinar, Health Cooperatives during COVID-19 and in times of crises. This was part of The Cooperative Way, a new initiative to showcase the capacity of the cooperative model to adapt to the needs of communities during challenging times.

The webinar took place within the framework of the #Coops4Dev partnership agreement between the ICA and the European Commission and featured speakers from Italy, Spain, Colombia, Cameroon and India.


Dr. Carlos Zarco, director of medical cooperative Fundación Espriu in Spain, shared his experiences from the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis.

Fundacion Espriu’s hospitals have treated more than 20,000 COVID-19 patients so far and have hired many additional staff - including retired professionals – to cope with the crises. Fundacion Espriu also partnered with local authorities to alleviate pressure on the national health service, and to launch an online platform created by member cooperative Asisa.. The website, Ahora más que nunca tranquilidad (Now, more than ever, keep calm) provides information and educates communities on the pandemic. 

Alessia Bellino from Gulliver Cooperative Sociale in Italy shared her cooperative’s successes in managing the spread of COVID-19, during a very unpredictable time. Italy was one of the first countries in Europe to be struck hard by the pandemic. Gulliver - which operates medical centres and senior care homes – managed to quickly redesign its operations and safety procedures, which resulted in zero cases of COVID-19 in its senior care home in Cialdini, Modena. Gulliver also redesigned some of its open spaces and closed common spaces to prevent contamination, and invested in training care providers to make sure its workers stayed safe. Of the 10 care homes managed by Gulliver, 50% remained COVID-19 free.

Mirai Chatterjee, chairwoman of the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) shared inspiring stories from India. In response to the pandemic, SEWA trained 750 frontline women workers in prevention measures and provided 21,000 health kits with masks to people in the community. 

Other cooperatives within the SEWA network manufactured hand sanitisers and masks for medical staff. SEWA also provided mental health support to COVID-19 patients to help them cope with the stigma around the pandemic.

SEWA has been helping women in the informal economy set up cooperatives since 1972. The federation includes 106 coops across six sectors, all run by women. SEWA’s health cooperative, which has 1,800 worker shareholders, produces ayurvedic medicines and operates pharmacies and a community health programme. 

Gilberto Quinche, from Coomeva in Colombia, said the quick adoption of prevention measures and training staff on how to stay safe was key to its operations. A COVID-19 hotline was established and has so far responded to 24,000 enquiries. To remain agile and able to respond to the crisis, Coomeva revised its long-term strategic plan, increasing emphasis on providing telemedicine and new technology to provide health services.

Dr Fadil Donkou, president of the country’s Association of Health Cooperatives, shared the experience of two health cooperatives in Cameroon: Sodimess and Sante Assurée Coop-CA. The cooperatives have led an awareness campaign to help the public stay safe during the pandemic, and distributed masks and sanitisers to refugees at the Minawao camp.

The speakers shared the lessons cooperatives have learned from COVID-19 pandemic. Mirai Chatterjee said it was important to work in partnership with governments and local authorities, and stressed that cooperatives must address the digital gap between formal and informal workers. For Coomeva, the most important lesson is that prevention is a priority. Dr Zarco concluded by warning that governments face rising healthcare spending, and that the cooperative movement can position itself as a viable alternative or partner to public healthcare. He believes that cooperative/private partnerships are the way forward.


The International Cooperative Alliance (ICA) knows that…