April 15, 2020

Princeton-Based Initiative Provides Digital Access to Isolated COVID-19 Patients

By Anne Levin

Brothers Manraj Singh and Sunny Singh Sandhu never overlapped during their years at Princeton University. But the two Woodrow Wilson School students — Singh a 2016 graduate, Sandhu from the current senior class — have recently joined forces in a project that tackles social isolation for COVID-19 patients and provides remote access for health care workers on the front line.

Connect for COVID-19, the first venture of their Digital Health Connectivity Project, is a fast-growing initiative that collects used smartphones, tablets, and laptops for hospitalized patients who lack them, so that they can be connected to their families while in isolation. The focus is on vulnerable populations, including senior citizens and the economically disadvantaged.

“We’ve heard these tragic stories about patients who are in their final days, but can’t connect with their families because they don’t have a smart device,” said Singh. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Describing their idea to friends, fellow students, alumni, and colleagues, the brothers immediately developed a national network of support. “Within a week and a half we have gone from a grassroots, Princeton-focused effort to a national campaign in about 10 different states,” said Sandhu. Singh added, “It’s become a team of medical students, human rights advocates, and design technologists, all of whom came together through the broader Princeton network. People in medical school are really driving this campaign. It’s not just us. We recognize the hard work everyone is doing.”

Singh said Princeton University’s motto — “In the Nation’s Service and the Service of Humanity” — has been a driving force. “This is what you essentially swear to when you graduate,” he said. “The core of this is a humanity issue. Not having a smartphone isn’t a human rights issue, but dying alone is.”

The brothers’ family is in North Carolina. Sandhu lives on campus, while Singh is living in a friend’s apartment in Princeton. “We’re four years apart, but we have a lot in common,” said Sandhu. “We’re interested in making sure inequities in people aren’t overlooked.”

Since graduating from Princeton, Singh has been working domestically and internationally as a health care strategy consultant. “I have been hearing about how the future of health is digital,” he said. “But the thing I keep realizing is that while people rave about how technology closes the gap, it is actually widening inequities. The low income and elderly, the disabled or low educated, are not benefiting. I can tell you that my grandmother doesn’t know how to use a device.”

More than 100 devices were collected in the first week. The first drop off will be to multiple hospitals in the tri-state area. Talks are currently underway with hospitals and health care facilities in Washington, Miami, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Haven, and elsewhere. “Wherever there’s a hot spot, we have coverage,” said Singh.

Beyond Connect for COVID-19, the brothers have larger goals going forward. Among their pending projects is Tigers for Nassau, which connects local restaurants with students who can help them push through the COVID-19 crisis by helping with technology. Sandhu spoke about the idea at last week’s Zoom meeting of the Princeton Merchants Association. “My father has a local grocery and grill in North Carolina, so this resonates with me,” he said. “It’s an idea we’re still developing.”

To donate devices or contribute funds to Connect with COVID-19, visit dhcproject.org/covid19.

“It’s great when individuals donate, and even better when organizations can donate in bulk,” said Singh. “That makes the process a lot easier. Our overall goal is to design, develop, and sustain technology-enabled solutions to some of the toughest challenges facing vulnerable populations. We want to make sure folks aren’t forgotten.”