Community Based Organisations are Key to Covid-19 Response

17 June 2020

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In this article, which originally appeared on the Sanitation & Water for All website, one of SDI’s co-founders and former chair of the SDI Board, Sheela Patel, highlights some of the notable responses to the Covid-19 pandemic – and resulting lockdowns – by SDI-affiliated federations of the urban poor.

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To prevent the spread of COVID-19, the two major guidelines are practicing social distancing and washing your hands with soap or use sanitizers. This directive could come across as an additional precautionary step in the lives of many. However, for several communities (especially those living in informal settlements) in the developing countries, these directives are challenging to follow.

We spoke to Shamim Banu Salim Sheikh, a member of Mahila Milan (a self-organized, decentralized collective of female) living in Mumbai slum about her community and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, “we try and tell other people that they should keep their hands clean, houses clean, don’t sneeze or cough in public places. But all these things are for rich people and not poor people like us. In this area most of the people have at least 7 to 8 members in their houses, how are you going to tell them they should not sit together or keep distance between each other?” Through a video message, Alice Wanini, a community health volunteer (CHV) in Mukuru Kwa Reuben slum in Nairobi, told SDI how difficult it is to encourage preventative measures such as social distancing and frequent handwashing in overcrowded slums, where 10 sqm shacks house families of ten or more and long lines at handwashing stations leave people frustrated.

This is the reality for almost 1 billion people living in informal settlements –between 30-70% of inhabitants in some cities–pandemics exacerbate the existing vulnerabilities, such as inequalities  in  access  to  water,  sanitation  and  hygiene  services, loss of livelihood for daily-wage earners, precarity of underlying conditions such as respiratory ailments, water-borne diseases, life-style diseases associated with poor nutrition and substance abuse.  As COVID-19 cases spiked around the world, stringent lockdown measures were put in places, thereby making community leaders or community based organizations as the first responders. In Sierra Leone, Federation of the Urban and Rural Poor (FEDURP) and their support NGO, the Centre for Dialogue on Human Settlements and Poverty Alleviation (CODOHSAPA) has been involved in the fight against COVID-19 in their localities within Freetown Municipality, which is the epicenter of the pandemic. The prevention and mitigation response undertaken by the FEDURP are as follows:

  • Development of case monitoring app (Freetown Informal Settlement Covid-19 Data – Fiscovidata) and mobilization of community volunteers to focus on the case and incident reporting,
  • Development of sensitization messaging materials such as posters, handbills, and videos: FEDURP consulted various messaging materials developed by the Ministry of Health and Sanitation. The contents of these materials were then customized to reflect the realities of slums and informal settlements. Engagement in community sensitization,  through direct community outreach and using various social media platforms to share videos and radio discussion,
  • Provision of veronica buckets (for hand washing) and face masks,
  • Working closely with settlement-based local chiefs to enforce government regulations and practices,
  • Engagement with state and local authorities to enhance government response to needs of informal settlements: Working with Freetown City Council to support a community kitchen targeting three extremely vulnerable communities targeting people with disabilities, the elderly, orphans, pregnant girls and female- headed households with multiple dependents.

In Malawi, 75% of the urban population live in informal settlements (National Statistical Office, 2018). The Malawi SDI Alliance has made the following progress in supporting informal settlements with information on COVID-19:

  • All 35 federation groups in Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu now have hand washing equipment. Cities were prioritized because that’s where the first cases were reported. Federation savings groups continue to meet and conduct their savings, loans and group entrepreneurial activities in compliance with government regulation.
  • The Malawi Alliance worked with the Lilongwe District Health Office to spread Covid-19 awareness messages to 10 informal settlements in Lilongwe City (population roughly 30,000) using a public address system that can effectively reach large numbers of people.
  • Community leaders from 24 informal settlements in Lilongwe City were capacitated with knowledge and skills on how to disseminate COVID-19  messages to their communities.
  • Media efforts carried out by Malawi Know Your City TV team to raise awareness with youth, including the production of 6 short videos depicting how COVID-19 has affected the informal trader, the girl child, and other vulnerable groups in informal settlements.

Through this overarching narrative on community action during pandemics, I want to highlight that lockdown means local adaptation–community members and leaders are the first respondents. Yet, their contribution remains invisible and unspoken. These community leaders are most trusted and what they say is taken seriously by the people. Unfortunately, the government do not include their ideas, suggestions or solutions in planning and response. Unless there is a two-way trust between providers and affected communities, and the voices of the most marginalized are not heard, the crucial support and assistance in lockdown will not happen.

I cannot stress enough, when the nation-state puts people in lockdown, there is an urgent need to ensure that they have access to food items and basic care. People are ENTITLED to these basic services, showing “beneficiary” labelled photos of people receiving food is not acceptable. Informal settlements are not receiving the aggressive support that they need, especially, in bringing the livelihoods for informal dwellers and removal of past deficits like poor water and sanitation.

The SWA global partnership has a unique role in this crisis and for creating a post-COVID world, first, by mobilizing its partners, especially governments to take an urgent and much-needed action to provide water and sanitation services in both urban and rural areas. Secondly, using its convening power to strengthen in-country inclusive partnerships to enhance liaison between government and all the relevant key stakeholders, especially the community based organisations (CBOs). Not just during this crisis situation, but also ensuring that the voices of CBOs are also reflected in the advocacy plans of national CSO networks. We all need to keep reminding each other that public health emergencies, such as COVID-19 and gradually building disaster of climate change now demand that we BUILD BACK BETTER.