Almost all communities across the world are now facing the adverse impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. While virologists and the pharmaceutical industry race against time to discover the right vaccine to bring the contagion under control; governments, public representatives, community leaders and civil society activists are grappling to minimise its negative outfall on the people. With no sign of receding in the foreseeable future, the pandemic has begun to take a disproportionate toll on those who live on the margins of society.
The official policy of lockdown to ensure "social distancing" has hit hard those who live hand to mouth and depend on wage labour. The announcement of the extension of the lockdown has triggered protests from those who face starvation and have largely remained outside the ambit of the government's humanitarian assistance programmes.
On April 20, hundreds of people from the Shaotal community of Chilagazi Union of Dinajpur Sadar upazila, who lost employment opportunities as a result of the pandemic, blocked roads and staged protests demanding government assistance. Days later in a similar protest, more than a hundred members of the Urdu speaking community took position in front of the Government's Women College in the capital's Pallabi area. The mask wearing protestors, including women and children, held placards that read "Help Murapara camp residents". On April 30, at a meeting of elders of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) presided over by the Chakma Raja, it was noted that despite efforts of the government, "contextual needs of remote and marginalised communities remained unfulfilled".
The above snippets of discontent are essentially manifestations of concern of three different minority groups located in the northern, central and south-eastern parts of the country. Despite the dissimilarities in their lived experiences in the Covid-19 reality, the vast majority of the members of the three communities are tied by their feelings of vulnerability. They have no work, no income, no savings to fall back on, and face starvation and malnutrition, making themselves and their loved ones susceptible to diseases, at a time when they confront the deadly virus. They are in dire need of support to maintain their subsistence.
Reports from the hill districts reveal that people are particularly hard hit, as the lean months of April and May were preceded by poor harvests in two successive years. This made them susceptible to intense food insecurity. News reports note that many poor Mro, Khumi, Tripura and Marma households are surviving only on potatoes. The extension of the lockdown exacerbated the plight of the pineapple and watermelon growers. Their dreams of making a copious profit from the bumper yield of the year has suddenly come crashing down. Weeks earlier, a pair of pineapples that was sold at Tk 30-40 now fetches a meagre Tk 10-15. The additional worry for many is how they would repay or service the loans that they have incurred, often at high interests.
The outbreak of measles in a number of areas has already taken a toll on children. On March 28, the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum and Kapaeeng Foundation reported hundreds of children were affected in the Sajek valley of Rangamati, the Lama region of Bandarban and Dighinala of Khagrachhari. Community leaders allege that these children were left out of the government vaccination programme. In response, the civil surgeon and the local administration claimed that it was the local people's "superstition" that held up the vaccination programme.
Allegations have been made that public assistance in the CHT has mainly reached those who live next to main roads and riverways, and not many efforts have been made to reach those in remote areas. Activists note that although health is the subject matter of the Hill District Council, the Councils have been effectively ignored by the Deputy Commissioner's office. Their apex body, the CHT Regional Council, was not assigned with a meaningful role. Lack of coordination among agencies involved in humanitarian assistance has also been identified as a problem.
The pandemic has gravely affected the indigenous peoples of the plains as well. Along with their peers in other adibashi communities, members of the Garo community of Madhupur and Fulbaria upazilas of Mymensingh and of Srimongol of Sylhet; Shaotals of Gobindaganj, Gaibandha; Orao and Pahraria in Rajshahi, Banais of Netrokona, Sherpur; Hajangs of northeast Bangladesh and Mundas of Sundarbans in Shatkhira district have been left without any earnings since the outbreak of the pandemic. In normal circumstances, these communities can barely maintain their subsistence by working as wage labourers in the construction sector or brick kilns, pulling rickshaws or collecting and selling crabs, snails and fish. The suspension of economic activities and restrictions on movement imposed in the aftermath of Covid-19 has effectively wiped out their scope for earning. The actuality of the pandemic becomes patent when even beggars are deprived of alms for fear of the contagion.
A near universal grievance is the absence of any assistance from government and non-government quarters. Shaotals of Dinajpur alleged that they did not receive any assistance despite the fact that the local Union Council authorities have collected photocopies of their national identity cards.
The situation is no better for linguistic minorities—the camp dwelling, Urdu speaking community. The 116 camps and settlements located in different parts of the country house 300,000-400,000 people, the largest being the so-called Geneva camp in Mohammadpur with 30,000 residents. Residents of the camps work as barbers, butchers, rickshaw-pullers, carpenters, mechanics and in handicrafts. The relatively enterprising ones are engaged in running shops and small businesses. The suspension of economic activities has brought immense suffering to these people. The services of those who worked as domestic help, mostly women, have been terminated without compensation. Urdu poet Shamim Zamanvi of Al-Falah Bangladesh lamented—"for the first time I see camp dwellers begging". Camp dwellers have been robbed of their last precious possession by Covid-19, their sense of dignity.
Press reports highlight the propensity of camp dwellers to not abide by the shutdown guidelines such as staying indoors, wearing masks or regularly washing hands. The reality is that those affected by the shutdown, mostly men, have little option but to loiter in the streets. Their dwellings are too small and congested to stay indoors. "Maintaining social distance is a dream for us; we have so little space to live in," notes one resident of Geneva camp. The summer heat makes it more difficult. Masks costs money. Another resident asks: "how can we protect ourselves if we cannot afford to buy masks, sanitisers and gloves?" Each tap of running water services hundreds of camp residents, if not thousands.
The camps continue to remain largely outside the purview of government and NGO assistance. "There's no one to help us, it's Allah on whom we depend", bemoans an elderly lady in Town Hall camp. In some camps, the residents vehemently protest local commissioners' claims that they provided assistance. "If indeed such distribution had taken place, then the only beneficiaries must have been those who worked for his election," noted a community worker.
The camps are in dismal conditions. On an average, six to eight people live in 10x12 feet structures. Experts note that if precautionary measures are not taken, the camps could be hotspots for the spread of the virus. Recently, in a single week, 11 people have been reported to have died with conditions similar to coronavirus: fever, cough and asthma.
Lack of seriousness in controlling the spread of the virus is palpably demonstrated in a case involving two patients, residents of Block B and C of the Geneva Camp, who tested positive for coronavirus. In a report by the Gulf Today, lawyer-activist Khalid Hussain of the Council of Minorities asserted that two facilities, including the IEDCR which is dedicated to treat coronavirus cases, refused to admit them, declaring their condition "not critical".
All three minority groups discussed here meet the vulnerability criteria set by the Working Group on Regional Risk Communication and Community Engagement. They depend heavily on the informal economy; occupy areas prone to shocks; have inadequate access to social services or political influence; have limited capacities and opportunities to cope and adapt and have limited or no access to technologies. There is an urgent need to "give them priority assistance, and engage them in decision-making processes for response, recovery, preparedness, and risk reduction".
Covid-19 poses a serious challenge to those involved in framing policies and implementing programmes. Along with gearing up awareness programmes, there is an urgent need to acknowledge the special vulnerability of these minority groups and provide cash assistance to the neediest, set up adequate testing and treatment facilities in their close vicinity, and create conditions for their safe return to work.
C R Abrar is an academic.