Bangladesh was unable to put in quarantine 213 students who came from the Chinese city of Wuhan—where the coronavirus originated—in early February and the subsequent influx of hundreds of thousands of people from countries like Italy where the virus was causing havoc. Similarly, Bangladesh failed to contain the outbreak of the deadly virus in a few hotspots like Dhaka, Narayanganj and Gazipur early on, causing it to spread all over the country. This "community transmission" was accentuated by the back and forth movement of people from the cities to the villages due to the declaration of the general holiday in late April and two Eid holidays thereafter.
Since the coronavirus does not have an approved treatment protocol and there is no certainty when an effective vaccine will be available, we will have to live with it for quite some time. According to some experts like Dr Anthony Fauci, we may never be able to get rid of the virus. Taking into consideration such expert opinion, The Hunger Project (THP) has launched an initiative in late March 2020 to create "coronavirus resilient villages" around the country.
Although local governments have not been given any direct responsibility by the government for controlling the virus, we have been working closely with Union Parishads in creating coronavirus resilient villages. Our initiative is leveraged on the "SDG Union Strategy", which THP had designed in 2015 to "localise" the SDGs. Village Development Teams (VDTs), self-help groups and the large number of volunteers mobilised as part of the SDG Union Strategy are the bedrock of the initiative.
Broadly speaking, the initiative involves:
First, making a declaration that "we are in it together" based on the realisation that protection of every single person is required to protect everyone from the coronavirus in a community. Such realisation creates community ownership of its wellbeing and community members' engagement in the efforts to contain and mitigate locally the effects of the spread of the virus. Success of these efforts depend primarily on fomenting a social movement to protect the community from the onslaught of the virus. The Hunger Project's trained volunteers have been playing the catalytic role in mobilising their neighbours and creating social capital to collectedly declare and initiate planned interventions to make their communities coronavirus resilient villages, making it a self-interest driven, decentralised and community-led initiative.
Second,raising awareness particularly by promoting 3Ws—washing hands, wearing masks and watching distance—in order to bring about behavioural changes in people to break the chain of infection. The volunteers use leaflets and direct personal contact—while maintaining safe distance—to disseminate information among villagers and motivate them to abide by health guidelines and manage the waste. In this effort, volunteers use the help of the health professionals posted in Union-level community clinics. They encourage religious and community leaders to dispel misinformation and disinformation about the virus. They also sensitise their communities against violence against women and children and child marriage, which tend to increase during a pandemic.
Third, identifying, isolating and assisting those showing symptoms of coronavirus and help them isolate in their homes and get them professional medical help, including testing for the infection. The volunteers mobilise villagers against stigmatisation of the "victims" of the coronavirus. They also arrange quarantine for outsiders coming to the village.
Fourth, identifyingand supporting households and individuals who are on the verge of starvation due to loss of livelihood. THP volunteers prepare lists of female headed households and households with children and persons with mental and physical disabilities. Volunteers also enrol those who are eligible into the government's social protection schemes, while helping others with money and materials collected locally through community philanthropy.
This self-interest-driven, communitywide and volunteer-led initiative is already making a huge difference. The initiative is underway in about 1,500 villages. As of the middle of July, the volunteers created awareness among over 3 million people. They engaged Imams and other important people to carry out over 5,000 campaigns against misinformation and disinformation about the virus. They collected nearly USD 450,000, in cash and kind, from the local people through "community philanthropy" to support those in distress. They helped enrol over 36,000 persons under the government's social protection schemes. Nearly 400 youth volunteers helped formers to harvest rice from 42 acres.
The World Health Organization issued several technical guidelines to effectively face the coronavirus pandemic, an important one of which is, Risk Communication and Community Engagement, intended to create awareness and community ownership. THP volunteers' corona resilient villages is a reflection of this guideline, which is already making a difference, and earned the accolade of experts.
Many experts feel that THP's approach, if applied throughout the country, could quickly control the coronavirus pandemic in Bangladesh. For example, Dr Mushtuq Husain, an adviser to IEDCR, recently wrote: "Your 'Corona resilient village' is a model not only for our villages, it may be replicated in our cities and towns. It is very urgent to minimise the numbers of Covid-19 patients from the community. The Covid-19 pandemic will not die down naturally. China, South Korea halted it through active effort of aggressive containment and mitigation measures, not only so-called 'lockdown'... If your model is followed all over Bangladesh, we will control Covid-19 within a month. Other countries will follow us."
The model has also begun to receive recognition from abroad. On July 23, LOGIN Asia—a Delhi-based network of organisations committed to local governance—arranged a webinar to share our experiences. Representatives and experts from many of the Asian countries attended the webinar and showed serious interests in our model.
To conclude, to bring the coronavirus under control, we need to mobilise the people to confront it from the community level. Like in 1971, mobilise volunteers to create resistance against it from their neighbourhoods. The coronavirus resilient villages can be a model for such resistance, and it can be upscaled with the partnership of the government to stop the virus in its track. We seek the attention of the authorities towards this important initiative.
Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar, Global Vice President and Country Director, The Hunger Project Bangladesh.