In 2008, Ravi Mokashi Punekar, a professor at IIT-Guwahati’s design department created a range of hospital furniture prototypes made from bamboo. For some reason, the project did not take off then. Now in 2020 — as the world battles the COVID-19 pandemic — the professor and his team have decided to bring back the project.
“Suddenly, there is a need to provide facilities for hospital beds, wheelchairs etc,” said Punekar, who is a product designer as well. “And perhaps now, more than ever, is the right time to think of this as a possible solution,” he said.
Punekar’s idea draws from the fact that Northeast India has a rich diversity of bamboo species, with unparalleled reserves of the material. But for long, its potential has been largely untapped.
“Back then, many years ago, we had done a survey of Primary Health Centres in rural Assam. We saw that while one-time provisions (for beds, furniture) were there, there was no maintenance or upkeep,” said Punekar, “Infrastructure facilities would deteriorate fast in these centres.”
That is when the team felt it was a good idea to branch into hospital furniture fashioned from bamboo. Around then, they had even done a public exhibition of the prototypes in Guwahati. “But there was no urgency at the time,” said Punekar.
A release from IIT-G stated: “Considering the present pandemic scenario, where there is an urgency in improving the basic infrastructure facilities in our primary healthcare services, the project offers scope for collaborative interaction amongst the various stakeholders.”
Since the pandemic, the institution has been coming up with a range of ideas on how to help during COVID-19, including initiatives to make low-cost face shields, intubation boxes, WHO-prescribed hand sanitisers, etc.
The furniture range includes beds, screens between beds, IV fluid stands, computer tables, examination table for patients, wheelchairs etc. Punekar feels these will be especially helpful for isolation and quarantine centres which will house people in large numbers.
“The plus point is that Assam has the raw materials (bamboo in abundance as well as the manpower (skilled craftsmen). These can be quickly made in an emergency situation,” he said.
The design team is already in touch with two local entrepreneurs who have agreed to undertake the manufacture of a simpler version of the hospital bed. Around 200 beds can be manufactured per day, said Punekar.
Punekar also feels this will be a good way to create sustainable alternative job solutions for craftsmen — especially when the industry is facing a slump during the lockdown.
Pulok Mondol, who is the deputy manager at Cane and Bamboo Technology Centre, which promotes bamboo sector of Northeast India, agrees the idea has promise. “There are above 140 species of bamboo in the Northeast,” he said, “We have the raw materials and the skill.”
But he added that the technical aspects need to be carefully considered. “The kind of bamboo you use, for one. It will definitely have to be small, lightweight and solid.”
Among the many things scientists across the world are trying to learn about the novel coronavirus is how long it can survive on different surfaces. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the COVID-19 virus can survive for “up to 72 hours on plastic and stainless steel, less than 4 hours on copper and less than 24 hours on cardboard.” There are no reports on how long this virus might survive on bamboo surfaces yet.
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