COVID-19 is perhaps one of the most lethal humanitarian disasters the world has witnessed in the last hundred years. The trajectory of the pandemic, which has rapidly expanded across the globe within a very short span of time since it was first announced in China, has been much talked about.
The virus, in its tremendous zest to touch millions of rich and poor lives across countries in the world, has also made its inroads into India— the country where almost 70% of the population dwell in rural areas. Despite the remarkable increase in telecommunication footprints and internet-based connectivity, a vast majority of this population remain disconnected from the national mainstream in every respect. They continue to live with limited access to basic amenities like water, sanitation, healthcare facilities, and the benefits of various social security programs.
But, if India has to emerge triumphant in this struggle against COVID-19, then the rural population cannot be left disconnected anymore. After all, as economist Siddharth Chandra rightly pointed out, earlier precedence of a pandemic like the 1918 Spanish Flu took almost 50 million lives globally, approximately 20% of whom were Indians, and apparently disconnected with the world outside.
A striking similarity between the two pandemics, the 1918 Spanish flu and COVID-19, spaced almost a century apart, is the tendency of the diseases to enter the country through people, who can be termed as carriers returning from other affected regions of the world, and later on having an increased likelihood of community outbreak, especially in areas with high-density populations.
In 2020, the government’s attempt to control the spread of COVID-19, at an early stage of contamination in India, by imposing a national lockdown, promoted stay at home in isolation, and avoiding unnecessary contact with others. Simultaneously, this has led to a sudden halt of all sorts of economic and social activities, with very few exceptions. As suggested by scientists and medical practitioners, a successful lockdown will ensure breaking the COVID-19 chain and cease the spread of infection.
But, an exceptionally large number of the rural population, being daily wage earners, will lose income and sources of livelihoods, leading to a greater crisis in the country’s economy. Delayed harvesting or sowing in agriculture will likely lead to food scarcity in the future.
Under such circumstances, the pandemic is not just a health emergency; it has also placed the country on the verge of an unprecedented economic catastrophe, creating widespread unemployment and poverty.
At this juncture, it is crucial to remain connected with the disconnected rural population of India not only through provisions of better healthcare facilities and support, but also by ensuring proper implementation of government programs, many of which are modified to fight the current emergencies, such as the free-of-cost supply of ration at the doorstep under Targeted Public Distribution System, coverage of testing and treatment for COVID-19 under Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana, and direct cash transfers by virtue of remittances to women account holders of Pradhan Mantri Jan-Dhan Yojana, to name a few.
Despite concerted efforts by the national and the state governments in India to control the entire situation, a huge percentage of the rural poor still remains excluded and vulnerable. Primary challenges that rural India is afflicted with include the inadequate and dismal state of healthcare facilities, generic lack of awareness about do’s and don’ts to control the pandemic, shortages of basic ration and other essential commodities, among others.
These challenges bring the poor and marginalised sections of the rural population to multiple crossroads. What to address first—healthcare or hunger? Social distancing, isolation, or falling prey to rumour-based panic attacks? And, it is here that the role of CSOs emerges to be a very critical one—to connect with the disconnected!
In the initial phase of the emergency, the role of CSOs in providing support and relief to the rural populace has been multifarious in nature. From relief feeding to converting anganwadi centres and schools into quarantine centres, from awareness generation on do’s and don’ts, sanitising the villages in collaboration with gram panchayats, to the use of indigenous ingredients in making protective equipment like masks and sanitizers—the ideas have been innovative and actions apt.
NITI Aayog’s recent directive has further reinforced the critical role CSOs can play in collaboration with the local government institutions in rural India.
As part of this collaborative effort in the coming months, actions like setting up of health camps, distribution of personal preventive equipment (PPEs) like sanitizers, masks, soaps, gloves for community health workers and volunteers, have been highlighted.
Also, the promotion of social and behavioural changes with a focus on good hygiene and sanitation practices in daily life, the practice of prevention methods like social distancing and isolation, and fighting the stigma among local communities are also specifically highlighted.
In the months past the preliminary emergency phase, creating connections with the disconnected rural Indian populace will be a prerequisite as well as a challenge for the central and the state governments in India. To address this issue, the government’s primary emphasis should be on generating trust in the psyche of the vulnerable rural masses—You are not the left-outs!
CSOs in India, with their last-mile reach and ability to associate with millions of rural poor, have the potential to serve as a connecting link between local communities and the government institutions. Hence, they can become a primary actor by helping people learn about and access the benefits of government programs, including immediate relief plans like health fairs and food camps, to mention a few. Their role in promoting general awareness and preparedness by mobilizing the local communities, including the youth and school students in future, will also be vital.
Creating linkages and channelising CSR funds is another action point for the CSOs.
Innovative ideas, such as the use of mobile vans to raise awareness levels of local communities, further use and promotion of technologies like community radios, and Interactive Voice Response System, with a focus on awareness-generation, using local dialects, provision of testing kits to detect COVID-19 apart from distribution of PPE items, among others, can be implemented through CSR/CSO collaborations.
Promoting multi-sectoral partnerships involving local governments and corporate/private sector investors, CSOs can spearhead the process of containing the pandemic in rural India as well as create an environment of prevention and protection in the months to follow.
Turn the pages of history: during the late nineteenth-century plague outbreak in India, more specifically in Bengal, the earliest manifesto was published and implemented by Swami Vivekananda and his followers of Ramakrishna Mission, one of the oldest CSOs of the country, to safeguard the local communities from the idiosyncrasies of a hitherto lesser-known epidemic!