People distributing essential items in Worli, Mumbai | Photo: Ashish Raje/ANI
People distributing essential items in Worli, Mumbai | Photo: Ashish Raje/ANI
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The entire world is facing the most challenging time because of the ruthless and rapid outbreak of Covid-19. India has witnessed more than 10,000 cases and has been put under lockdown till 3 May to check the spread of the coronavirus. While the Narendra Modi government is taking measures and strengthening the health infrastructure, local communities are coping in their own ways to weather the Covid-19 storm.


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Community in Covid-19 crisis

In such unprecedented times, local communities emerge as the critical contact point for collectivising the concerns, mobilising the resources and responding to the crisis. Preparedness and early action by communities are very critical because with the Covid-19 outbreak, transmission escalation is rapid, which leaves no space for any planning and prevention.

The countries ravaged by disease outbreaks in the past, such as Liberia and other parts of Western Africa, dealt with a crisis through effective community leadership. During the Ebola epidemic, Liberia identified certain factors as crucial in addressing the outbreak — “strong leadership, tight bonds and sense of kinship at the community level; trusted communication channels; and trust among various health system stakeholders.” Due to these factors, initiatives from other levels of the health system reached the community, facilitating a collective response to the crisis.

The role of community and local leadership during the Covid-19 crisis is essential since it can provide support to those hit by this pandemic — people devastated due to the loss of jobs, migrant labourers, children who have dropped out and  affected families facing stigmatisation.  There are incidents of attacks on health care workers. The psychological and social behaviour need to be addressed by providing right information and support to the distressed families. This can only be managed at the local level by a strong leadership.


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Importance of CBOs 

In India, local groups and community based organisations (CBO) have mounted Covid-19 responses in their areas for decentralised forms of care, isolation, physical distancing, active surveillance, case finding and contact tracing. CBOs like CARE India are working with the government of Bihar in contact tracing, monitoring, infection control, laboratory and hospital strengthening to fight Covid-19. Alongside, these CBOs have advocated for improved water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services and extended related support to the concerned government departments.

In the formal settings, resident welfare associations (RWAs) have gained prominence in inhibiting the spread of the disease by restraining public movement, sealing off the community infrastructure (parks, recreational centres and community halls) and mandating masks for all. These RWAs also report cases of residents’ foreign history with the concerned department.

Similarly, in the informal settlements such as slums (65 million as per Census 2011), which are largely inhabited by informal workers, urban poor and the migrants, the strength is derived from the local communities. These comprise youth groups, women groups and slum based community organisations that are working tirelessly towards restraining the spread through strict imposition of physical distancing and health hygiene. CBOs like Sustainable Environment and Ecological Development Society (SEEDS) are reaching out to migrants, workers and others in states like Bihar, Delhi, Karnataka, Kerala, Maharashtra, Odisha and Uttarakhand by supplementing public health systems, supplying hygiene kits and supporting temporary quarantine facilities.

Importantly, these CBOs are instrumental in distributing basic essentials to the distressed community.  Goonj is one such CBO, which is working towards rehabilitation of daily wage earners through transport of kits — essential dry rations and personal care products — to over a million migrant labourers. Youth Feed India and SAFA Society are working across Hyderabad, Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Gurugram, Mumbai and northern Karnataka assisting urban poor by introducing sustainable livelihoods, establishing skill training centres and distributing essentials.

However, when India is witnessing a lockdown, stories of community response to deal with the crisis through bottom up approach are going to surface only later. But still, there are some reports on self-help groups making masks and distributing it to the community and frontline workers.

Many organisations are working with urban local bodies (ULBs) and panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) to help quarantine migrant workers in local schools and providing food and shelter to them. They are also making people aware on how to practise physical distancing while collecting water at common water points or about the usage of community toilets and  hand washing practices.

Overall, lockdown scenarios have led heavy reliance on the CBOs and local communities to allay the fears of its community, ensure access to basic and essential services, and further limit the transmission of Covid-19 within the community.


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Community-centric response to Covid-19

In the wake of Covid-19, CBOs need to garner support from philanthropic organisations and the government to strengthen containment, detection and treatment, support crisis management capabilities, and enhance resilience and recovery. Collaborating with local residents and CBOs and trusting them as stewards of their communities enables effective control measures during these unprecedented times.

Working with such community groups fosters local development planning and design in articulating collective solutions. Thus, there is a need to augment the capacities of local governance institutions, such as PRIs and ULBs, through responsible leadership and social capital. Failing to build such capabilities in the community will turn any response useless.

It needs to be strategised how local communities can allay the fears of its people and provide essential services. Here comes the  role of CBOs to further resilience by innovating public health, social and economic interventions centric to the key thrust areas of ‘income, food and shelter’.

However, ‘community ownership’, especially for physical distancing, remains the most important intervention. Unless there is an uptake of self-quarantine measures or self-monitoring by the people, it is difficult to implement an impervious lockdown.

As this pandemic is turning into a humanitarian disaster, there is a dire need for CBOs’ vigilance, government’s will and community’s power to mitigate the Covid-19 concerns.

Anju Dwivedi is a senior researcher and Bharti is a senior research associate at Centre for Policy Research (CPR), New Delhi. Views are personal.

This article is a part of ThePrint-CPR series based on Scaling City Institutions for India’s (SCI-FI) research on water and sanitation. Read all the articles in the series here.

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