Fighting COVID-19 with creativity

When a friend approached Fabian de Leede to see if he could help covert snorkel masks into medical masks through 3D printing, he had no idea how quickly the project would snowball into what it is today. “One the first day, 50 people signed up to help with the project. Within a month we had more than 250 volunteers.”

De Leede is studying Maritime Technology at TU Delft. He started 3D printing as a hobby. Now he’s helping to lead 3DResponse, a non-profit and primarily student-run organization which aims to use 3D printing to address the shortage of equipment in the COVID-19 crisis. He says one reason the project was able to take off so quickly is the amount of 3D printers owned by individuals and companies in the Netherlands. The average number of 3D printers within the 3DResponse volunteer network is 1.5 to 2 printers per person.

“At the time we launched our project, the COVID-19 regulations had been in place for one week. Many people were sitting at home, trying to think of ways they could help in this crisis. 3D printing is an easy way to make an impact.” This includes printing items specifically for the healthcare sector, such as medical masks and face shields. The organization can also produce hands-free door handles and other products that can help combat the spread of the virus. “These are things that we use every day, but now because of COVID-19 they need to be creatively reimagined and then mass-produced.”

De Leede explains that 3D printing is an ideal solution for tackling the equipment shortage, because it is fast and very flexible. As soon as one demand is met, 3DResponse can quickly shift to meet a completely different need. Within the first month, 3DResponse printed 1,000 face shields for less than two euros per shield. As schools reopen in the Netherlands, they expect to receive more requests for items that can help protect teachers and students.

“Because we are a volunteer organization, our overhead is low and we can produce the materials very inexpensively. Our donors and sponsors have enabled us to provide the equipment to facilities at no cost to them.” Companies and individuals interested in supporting the project can get in touch at 3DResponse.nl. Requests for 3D-printed equipment can be made on the 3DResponse website.

Combating the other crisis: isolation
Jorren Bosga and a few of his friends were already thinking of creative ways to get involved in volunteering before the Coronavirus crisis happened. “We noticed that volunteering isn’t very popular with young people in the Netherlands and we wanted to see how we could change that. Suddenly, we saw an opportunity to address the isolation that vulnerable groups are facing during this crisis.”

They quickly came up with a plan for connecting volunteers with elderly people for digital walks. Bosga explains that the idea is for younger people, who are in a lower risk group, to video chat with an elderly person while walking in an area that’s familiar to them. “We want to make it personal by connecting them to a neighborhood they lived in or an area they would like to see. The volunteer is more like an extension of that person, so that they can experience a walk that they’re not able to do right now.”

They named their initiative FreeWillies, a play on the Dutch word for volunteer (vrijwilliger). The project is now partnered with Serve the City, which helps coordinate with care facilities and ensure that elderly residents are able to make video calls. Bosga says he’s noticed that this crisis has really motivated people to help others, so signing up enthusiastic volunteers has been easy. “Now we are just mostly waiting, since the facilities are very busy dealing with the immediate health consequences of the virus. So, it’s taken off more slowly while the virus has been at a peak.”

Even after the crisis has ended, Bosga says the larger goal of the project is to see how it can change the perception of volunteering to make it more appealing for younger people. “We want to modernize digital platforms and the model of volunteering in general. We want to make volunteering cool again and improve the quality of services offered by volunteer organizations.”

FreeWillies.nl is primarily focused on connecting Dutch-speaking people, but hopes to expand the platform into English in the coming months.

Written by Megan Janicke