Resilience in the Time of Covid
March 31, 2021
Over a year after its outbreak, Covid-19 continues to stalk the globe. Though no country has escaped its wrath, the effects of the pandemic have fallen disproportionately on developing regions. These are places where women and girls, ethnic and religious minorities, residents of congested urban slums, and workers in the informal economy who lack benefits or safety nets are especially vulnerable to the pandemic’s assault on health, livelihoods, individual rights, and personal security.
In South Asia, poor nutrition and hygiene, limited access to healthcare, and the ever-present shadow of economic hardship have amplified the suffering of vulnerable groups. The communities most at risk from the virus are often the least able to follow basic safety protocols such as mask-wearing and social distancing, because masks and space are scarce. Public information campaigns have left serious gaps: vaccine hesitancy has emerged as a major obstacle to the goal of herd immunity, and effective communication of the science of the virus has become a priority. The health crisis and its economic repercussions have inflamed communal strife, triggering scapegoating of minority communities and interfaith violence in some territories, as exemplified by clashes between Sinhali Buddhists and minority Muslim groups in Sri Lanka.
In a new, EU-funded initiative, the South Asia Regional Project to Strengthen Community Resilience to Covid-19, The Asia Foundation is working to blunt the impact of the pandemic and build the resilience of the most vulnerable populations of Bangladesh, India, Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.
To slow the transmission of Covid-19, the Foundation is partnering with government offices, communications agencies, civil society organizations, community leaders, and technology innovators to ramp up public information about health and support services and publicize official safety guidelines. A targeted information campaign including video and radio messages and engagement workshops will also work to turn down the heat on intercommunal tensions.
A key project goal is to boost the delivery of vital services to vulnerable populations by retooling public policies on the pandemic. Part of the solution will be to get better information to government agencies about the serious difficulties confronting vulnerable groups, including women. Another part will be independent monitoring to track improvements in healthcare delivery and flag successes and failures for the relevant agencies.
A recent study of women workers by The Asia Foundation declared, “Women are more vulnerable to Covid-19-related economic effects because of existing gender inequalities.” The gendered impacts of the pandemic have left women and girls especially at risk of lost livelihoods, unequal and burdensome family care, and domestic violence. Eighty percent of the informal workforce in South Asia consists of women who lack financial security and often work in unsafe conditions. As the pandemic has disrupted and destroyed their tenuous livelihoods, domestic and mental-health crises have surged among women.
Unwinding these inequities often means breaking a vicious cycle. Project representatives in Bangladesh are reaching out to Dalit families to offer instruction on hygiene practices to reduce viral transmission. But Sadia Sultana, who oversees project activities in Bangladesh, says the reality of getting poor women into project workshops is a challenge.
“Bangladesh’s Dalit community lives below the poverty line,” she says. “Since the pandemic, Dalit women have had to take on more household responsibilities, so they can’t make time for workshops or activities.”
The role of misinformation
The spread of fake news, typically through social media, has also hobbled efforts to contain the virus, as is the case in Pakistan. A key aspect of the awareness campaign there has been to debunk myths about the virus to fight vaccine hesitancy and defuse intercommunal bias. Hassan Ahmad, a resident of Peshawar, recalls how the first cases of Covid-19 in his hometown sparked a barrage of rumors.
“Soon after the advent of the virus, some people in my neighborhood told me that Covid was a conspiracy by those in power to achieve their ulterior motives,” he told us. “I always doubted this narrative, but many others eagerly lent their ears to these myths.”
A local implementing partner by the name of Accountability Lab (AL) now broadcasts verified information on a regular basis, using a range of communication channels. Their methodical process involves corralling fake news as it circulates and challenging each rumor with facts. When AL’s representatives arrived in Ahmad’s hometown to recruit volunteers, he joined the cause. He now works on the front lines as a campaigner who dispenses official health advisories and counters misinformation. “Since I enrolled as a volunteer, I’ve learned that rumors spread faster than the virus itself,” he says. “Preventive measures backed by scientific evidence can save lives.”
The Asia Foundation has more than six decades of experience bolstering governance, empowering women, and building resilience in South Asia. This project is tackling the dire social consequences of the pandemic with a grassroots effort built on our strong, local ties with government actors, community organizations, and the private sector. While the local context varies from country to country, the South Asia region is united by a common sociocultural and economic environment and a shared set of challenges and opportunities. This project unites expertise from throughout the region for a coordinated approach to crisis management that cuts across geographical boundaries.
Syed Abbas Hussain is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in Pakistan and communications coordinator for the South Asia Regional Project to Strengthen Community Resilience to Covid-19. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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