COVID 19 pandemic has impacted the entire world severely. It has affected not only health and survival but also socio-economic development of the world as a whole. In short run, while it has caused tremendous casualties, measures to restrict its spread, like lockdown and other mobility restrictions, have resulted in creating food security issues as supply chain is hampered. Supply of other essentials has also been affected in spite of the efforts of government to minimize this. Hunger and malnutrition, in this situation, are likely to increase. Incidence of other diseases too can increase because people are hesitating in approaching health services for other issues and the health machinery itself is heavily occupied with its treatment and vaccination. We are already seeing children missing immunization and women skipping ANCs because of the fear of the pandemic.
Loss of livelihood has been the most devastating outcome of the pandemic. Lockdown resulted in closure of several economic activities and resulted in increasing unemployment heavily. While subsequent relaxations resulted in partial recovery, resurgence of the virus in last few months is pushing the country in the same direction once again. In such situation, unemployment is growing rapidly and poverty is creeping in.
Education of children has also suffered a lot in this situation because of prolonged closure of schools. While efforts like online education have been attempted, they have not proved successful in remote areas where penetration of digital technology is low and internet connectivity is poor. With discontinuity of education and increase in economic vulnerability, many of the children have dropped out from education and become irregular. They have started engaging in child labour and their risk of being abused and trafficked has also increased. Increase in child marriage is also evident.
Women, too, are suffering in this situation because loss of livelihood and rising poverty has led to an increase in violence against them.
Prayatn’s efforts to address COVID 19
Prayatn, as civil society organization, has come forward to minimize the suffering through immediate relief work, continued awareness building, support to public health and nutrition machinery and rehabilitative support. On the other hand, issue of livelihood has been addressed through immediate linkage with MNREGA and then subsequent support through Self Help Groups developed at community level.
Highlights of COVID response by Prayatn
COVID 19 pandemic has emerged as one of the biggest challenges to human survival in the recent times across the globe. Government of India responded swiftly to the pandemic and enacted nation-wide lockdown restrictions of which were relaxed gradually. The pandemic and the corresponding restrictions had multiple repercussions and Prayatn, as civil society organization came forward to minimize the same through immediate relief work, continued awareness building, support to public health and nutrition machinery and rehabilitative support.
When lockdown was imposed on March 24, 2020 people were not prepared for it. In spite of undertaking ration distribution on its own and intensive planning, government machinery found reaching out to each every family difficult. Food security and nutrition emerged as the first challenge and it was realized that if civil society organizations do not come forward to support deaths due hunger and malnutrition will be difficult to avert. Prayatn therefore decided to enter into emergency relief and coordinated with government authorities as well as its funding partners. After taking special permission, ration kits were procured and distributed across all the areas where the organization has reach. Support to migrant workers too was extended in this process. Besides ensuring that the staff members themselves do not become spreaders of the pandemic by ensuring abidance to COVID prevention norms, using PPE kits and preferring telecommunication over physical interaction; maintaining dignity of the needy families by maintaining their confidentiality as per government norms was given due importance. Restarting of services of Anganwadis and Midday Meal in the form of dry ration was also pursued with government taking support of other civil society organizations as well because it was realized that closing of these services was increasing the vulnerability of the community members, particularly women and children, to hunger and Malnutrition. As soon as the services were resumed, spreading awareness in the community about the same was also pursued.
During the course of relief work, it was realized that the community awareness on COVID was lacking, especially in rural areas because of limited reach of mass media in them. People were not using masks, maintaining social distance and following hand sanitization in proper manner because of which risk of infection had increased. Since mass gathering was not recommended and permitted in the situation, innovative ways like movement of awareness vehicle, small group interaction etc. were undertaken.
In order to develop habit of using masks and following hand hygiene, readymade masks and soaps were also distributed in rural areas. Sanitary pads, a necessity for reproductive health and hygiene, were also distributed to adolescent girls and as the supply of the same through Anganwadis had got disturbed in this process.
With the development of vaccines in India, COVID vaccination programme has begun in India. The organization has decided to extend all possible support to the initiative by generating community awareness on the same and motivating the members to get them vaccinated as per their turn. Awareness building on continuing abidance to COVID prevention norms till pandemic is brought into total control will be continued even after completion of the vaccination programme.
Grassroots level frontline workers of the government like staff public health centers and Anganwadis, police personnel, members of Panchayati Raj Institutions were playing crucial role in ensuring supply of essential material and services without any break. However, they themselves did not have supply of essential protection material like masks, PPE kit, hand washes, sanitizers, etc. for their own protection. In this situation, the organization came forward to take care of them by providing these essentials to them.
When government enacted lockdown in March 2020, a lot of workers became jobless as most of the factories, construction work, etc. were stopped although agriculture was possible. So when the lockdown was prolonged, a large number of migrant workers returned to their villages in spite of restrictions. Livelihood was the immediate concern for them because they had migrated to other places as resources within the village were not proving adequate to them. In the villages where the organization was working, we knew that poverty may prove to be more challenging than the pandemic itself and unless this is addressed, their survival even in the village will not be easy and poverty related issues like child labour, child marriage, hunger, stress, violence against women, etc. will increase. The organization, therefore, sprung into action immediately and tried to work out ways to ensure livelihood support to the migrant workers. While they were motivated for quarantining themselves for the stipulated period and inform local authorities, they were able to apply for job under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme which was continued by the government following social distancing and other COVID related restrictions during the period. Awareness about direct cash transfer by the government in the accounts of the poor was also spread. Since, mobility restrictions were there during the period, use of telecommunication and social media was preferred in this process wherever they were accessible. We also motivated SHGs to extend relaxations in pending loan recovery from their members as well as waiving off their interest loan and penalties for delay. Some of the SHGs even distributed their savings back to the members to ensure support to them.
While the above mentioned measures were for immediate relief, we felt that mid–term and long-term measures were also required because the pandemic is expected to affect for longer period. As such, support for alternative livelihood development was initiated with the extension of loan support for such purposes through the SHGs. Support was provided for purposes like purchase of milch cattle as such businesses were not stopped even during the pandemic because they fall under essential supplies. While seasonal migration to nearby places for work has restarted as the restrictions have been eased out, many people are still continuing in the village owing to low industry demand and upsurge of COVID cases because of which restrictions are being re-imposed.
COVID 19 pandemic has affected education of children a lot because formal schools could not run in proper manner since March 2020. While government is trying to open them now, achieving normalcy will take time. Education through technological means like online education or those through television or radio have also been attempted but their reach has remained limited to urban and sub-urban setting because of poor penetration of these means in rural areas and their unaffordability. In such situation, chances of children dropping out and their switching over to child labour, child marriage, etc., were high. In this situation, as soon as the lockdown was relaxed, we decided to work out alternative ways to ensure continuity of the education of children. We encouraged our Shiksha Mitras to start teaching children within their village in small groups following COVID prevention norms like social distancing, use of mask, etc. Education about COVID pandemic and activities like handwashing demonstration were also organized with them. Masks, soaps for handwashing, etc., were also distributed to promote their use as a habit. Offline mode was mixed with online mode wherever mobile network was available and Shiksh Mitra had smartphone for using educational videos received from education department or those provided by our own experts. The effort received wide appreciation from children, community members as well as Education Department because it helped in bridging the digital divide which has become important and wide in the current scenario.