As the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged urban and rural India alike, governments, civil society and communities had to grapple with an overburdened healthcare system, lack of basic necessities such as food and medical support, loss of livelihoods, vaccine hesitancy, and more.
In response to this crisis, on 26 May, 2021, 56 civil society organisations (CSOs) from across the country met online on invitation from Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), Centre for Youth and Social Development (CYSD), Sahbhagi Shikshan Kendra (SSK), Samarthan, and Unnati.
Their objective was to discuss the COVID-19 situation and understand the emerging needs of CSOs and their response to the pandemic. The idea of launching a survey to gain a more accurate understanding of the situation was mooted. This was perceived as particularly relevant in light of the changes in the regulatory environment, particularly amendments to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, which adversely affected the funds and resources available to small and medium-sized organisations.
The survey—Civil society support to COVID-19 affected families—was launched by a team at PRIA. A total of 583 responses were received from CSOs working in 26 states and 4 union territories, out of which 577 responses were considered for analysis.
The CSOs that participated in the survey are predominantly small and medium-sized organisations. More than two-thirds of the respondents work in one to five districts, with an annual budget of less than ₹1 crore. One-fifth of the respondents have an annual budget that is more than ₹1 crore and only a few respondents have an annual budget greater than ₹5 crore.
CSOs have played an active role in mitigating the adverse effects faced by thousands of families due to the pandemic. Across survey respondents, 384 CSOs (or 66%) were able to reach out and provide support to 48,18,761 families. Nearly half of the respondents were able to support between 100 and 1,000 families. And 6% were able to reach out and provide support to more than 10,000 families.
Nearly 91% of the respondents distributed personal hygiene items such as masks, sanitisers, sanitary pads, gloves and PPE kits to community members and frontline workers. Also, 78% distributed food—dry rations, cooked food, or both. And 73% provided various kinds of medical supplies—medicines, oxygen cylinders and concentrators and oximeters.
CSOs helped arrange COVID-19 tests, blood plasma and hospitalisation of patients, as needed. One-fifth of the respondents also helped organise quarantine centres, encouraged vaccination and helped conduct vaccination drives. Additionally, more than half of them offered psychosocial counselling and emotional support to distressed families and communities.
Approximately one-fifth of the respondents offered cash support to families in light of job losses and loss of income sources due to pandemic-related lockdowns and curfews.
Given that the CSOs that participated in the survey have extensive experience working on the ground, they were able to quickly identify and adapt to the needs of their communities.
Approximately 74% conducted door-to-door visits to disseminate relevant information to the communities. Also, 55% created customised information, education, and communication (IEC) materials by translating them into local languages. And 95% provided information about COVID-19 appropriate behaviour such as wearing masks, washing hands, using sanitiser and social distancing.
More than 50% of the respondents disseminated information about access to medicines and medical support. They provided information about the availability of doctors, hospital beds, quarantine centres, oxygen cylinders and drugs such as Remdesivir. And 63% of them provided information about COVID-19 vaccines.
More than 50% of the CSOs provided information about documents required, such as an Aadhaar card, so that intended beneficiaries could access government schemes and benefits. Approximately 75% disseminated information about existing government schemes.
The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a diverse set of challenges for women, severely impacting their economic, physical and mental well-being. These are some of the challenges captured by the survey:
Survey respondents reported widespread job losses due to the pandemic, the rising cost of living and financial crises within families in the second wave of the pandemic.
Large populations of migrant workers were forced back to their villages, while those migrants who chose to stay struggled to access welfare support. The elderly reported irregularities in receiving their pensions and other social security provisions. Further, CSOs reported having to attend to cases of depression, anger and stress due to loneliness and self-isolation.
Respondents indicated that there were sharp inequalities in accessing education and health services among adolescents. Adolescent sexual and reproductive health and access to nutrition and meals as a part of the mid-day meals programmes in schools have been adversely affected.
Access to education has been limited in areas with poor internet connectivity and for those without access to smartphones. Dropout rates among adolescents living in rural areas have particularly increased, making them more vulnerable to child labour and exploitation.
People with disabilities have largely been excluded from government relief measures in the face of the pandemic. They have faced widespread hunger, neglect and limited access to healthcare support.
Other issues include difficulty accessing pensions, securing rations, neglect from family members and society at large, securing vaccination slots and inability to access transportation facilities. Accessing information was particularly difficult for persons with visual impairment, hearing impairment or those who suffered from intellectual disabilities.
Unfortunately, 93% of CSOs reported that the unavailability of financial resources was the biggest challenge they faced while responding to the second wave of COVID-19. This financial crunch curtailed their operations. Further, approximately 75% of the CSOs reported that their relief efforts were hindered by restricted mobility due to lockdowns and curfews.
Out of the 577 respondents, 205 reported instances of sickness faced by their staff because of contracting COVID-19, while 54 CSOs reported an occurrence of death among their staff. Also, 44% reported sickness of staff to be a significant problem. And 53% highlighted that the lack of human resources posed a challenge to the smooth functioning of their organisations.
More than half the CSOs reported that they faced an inadequate supply of safety gear for their staff.
Other challenges reported by CSOs include lack of support from the local government, mental stress faced by staff members and delays in reaching remote locations to carry out relief efforts.
Unfortunately, 78% of the respondents reported lack of donor support or flexibility to be a major challenge. Also, 42% reported having to use their own resources to engage in relief and community support activities. Further, 40% were unable to raise any new resources to support ongoing relief work.
Only 7% managed to receive CSR funding for pandemic disaster alleviation during the second wave of COVID-19. Also,6% were able to mobilise community resources for their efforts. Lastly, only 6% of resources raised for relief purposes came from foreign donor contributions (individual and organisational donations) and assistance from the Indian diaspora.
More than 50% of the CSOs also reported facing trouble procuring relief materials from the market due to the lockdown and curfews.
Critical to accessing markets and communities was coordination between CSOs and Panchayati Raj Institutions, municipalities and block and district administrations. However, nearly one-third of the CSOs reported a lack of cooperation from these bodies when conducting relief operations on the ground.
The second wave of COVID-19 has wreaked devastation in rural and urban communities across India. Despite facing immense challenges of their own, CSOs across the country came together to respond to the needs of the communities in which they work.
Given the scale of the crisis, their presence has been vital to ensuring that communities have access to basic necessities and resources like personal hygiene supplies, rations, medical support and more. Going forward, this raises important strategic questions about how CSOs can be better supported by donors and the government.
This article was originally published on India Development Review.
About the author:
Pallavi Deshpande is an editorial analyst at IDR, where she supports the team with day-to-day publishing and editorial operations. Prior to this, she served as an AIF Clinton Fellow at Vision Aid, Visakhapatnam, where she worked on research, programme design and evaluation and content creation.
She has had experience working on research projects about issues such as disability rights and the intersection of education policy, gender and conflict. Pallavi holds a BA in Economics from Claremont McKenna College, California.