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LODZ, Poland — When Russia invaded Ukraine last February, it did not take Zbigniew Molenda, founder and vice president of Pelion S.A., Poland’s largest healthcare sector business, and his colleagues long to decide whether or not to respond.
“This was nothing about business. We didn’t think to help or not; it was so natural. It was a natural consequence of so many people needing help. After February 24, a huge flow of people came to Poland and from the first hour, we, like very many Polish people, started to help,” he said during an interview at Pelion’s headquarters in Łódź, where hallway lights were turned off due to energy-saving government mandates.
“We are a pharmaceutical company, but in fact, we are a distribution company, and we started thinking about how we could help. There were many asks from many people, but what we realized from the very beginning is that it should be professional help,” he said.
In the early days of the war, Poles were trying to help by buying products at pharmacies and shipping them to the Poland-Ukraine border, resulting in a logistics nightmare as supplies began building up in a disorganized fashion, Molenda recalled. Additionally, people tended to purchase the same few products.
“We got information from Ukrainians saying, ‘Don’t send any more paracetamol! We have enough paracetamol!” Molenda said.
“We can send products in bulk, and keep track of what we’re sending, so after consultations with the Polish and Ukrainian governments, that’s what we did,” he said.
PGF, a Pelion subsidiary in the wholesale pharmaceutical business, took the lead in fundraising and sourcing pharmaceuticals from Polish pharmacies — the overwhelming majority of which are owned by Pelion — to ship across Poland and into Ukraine. They also sent donations of hygiene supplies, medical supplies, food, and cash.
In addition to shipments of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies, Pelion began assessing their existing services for suitability to convert them to charitable programs for refugees. They found candidates within their telehealth service, called Dimedic, which was built out during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic and offered low to no-cost medical consultations. Another candidate was a cashless pharmaceutical fintech platform called epruf. The platform was initially set up for Polish citizens, enabling patients to see their copayment and then pay it.
With an initial $10 million grant from Direct Relief, which was supplemented with an additional $1 million from Pelion and $5 million from Direct Relief, Pelion could quickly adapt epruf for Ukrainian refugees, allowing them to receive medicines and medical supplies.
Direct Relief has deployed more than 1,030 tons of medical aid and $20 million in financial assistance to Ukraine since the war broke out.
According to an analysis by Direct Relief, based on Pelion data, the program was supporting health commodities access for about 17% of all Ukrainian refugees in Poland, which has accepted the highest number of refugees as a result of the Russian invasion.
This service has been crucial for many refugees, especially those with chronic conditions since many people did not take medicine for the long term, said Molenda, according to both experiential assessments and data from the program, which shows the types of medications that have been prescribed for patients.
The telehealth service has also been deployed to aid refugees by providing healthcare provider assessments at no cost to the patient, including mental healthcare services.
Both systems, which comprise the Health4Ukraine initiative, were operational for refugees within weeks of deciding to move forward with the programs.
The business of doing good
Beyond helping refugees who have escaped since February 24, Pelion has also supported their Ukrainian employees hired before the invasion. Some specific measures included giving them guaranteed job security and paid time off if they wanted to visit their families in Ukraine. Employees were also assisted in the process of bringing family members into Poland. PGF offered their 300 Ukrainian employees bonuses to help with family members who are still in Ukraine as well as access to mental healthcare.
Beyond helping their employees, Pelion hosted 50 refugees, mostly mothers with their children, to live on the headquarters’ grounds in a converted warehouse and office. They provided them with food, clothing, medical care, and physiological assistance. For all refugees, in addition to the Health4Ukraine initiative, Pelion set up a Ukrainian language website that shows local job openings.
Pelion also began a push to hire post-invasion refugees. At a warehouse next to their main office, which has about 24,000 products and can provide same-day fulfillment for up to 60,000 orders, 30% of staff members are now Ukrainian.
Piotr Cieślak, CEO of PGF, said that onboarding refugees proceeded without any interruption to business operations, which he credited to Ukrainian employees who had been working for PGF and Pelion.
“There was no impact on business operations. They have been helpful [as employees],” he said. “We felt a huge solidarity,” Cieślak said.
Asked about the onboarding process and her early days working for Pelion, factory worker Nadiia Kravchyk, who joined before the war, said, “It was easy… everyone was very supportive, and other Ukrainians helped me with the language barrier.” Kravchyk said. Signs in Ukrainian are posted throughout the factory, sometimes with handwritten edits and additions.
Molenda and Cieślak said employees have also acted in other ways to help refugees, both with supplies and to feel more at ease, such as by playing Ukrainian music in warehouses and offices. Some employees from Olsztyn, Cieślak said, went with home-baked cakes to local refugee centers during the early days of the war and ate with refugees. Many employees have hosted refugees in their homes.
“They’ve started to inspire one another,” Cieślak said.
“People love to do it,” Molenda said, noting it has buoyed morale among both Polish and Ukrainian employees.
Molenda said Pelion plans to continue responding to the crisis, focusing on refugees in Poland. Pelion’s current charitable shipments into Ukraine are now going via the Polish government. Molenda said Pelion would continue assessing and responding to any requests from the Ukrainian government for aid.
As inflation continues to rise in Poland — it hit 17% year over year in September — and the specter of a difficult winter becomes a reality, some might want to pull back from supporting the refugees. Despite such developments, Molenda said he disagreed with any sentiment of reducing support. “These people are still here, and they still need help,” he said.