Every 100 years or so, humanity witnesses and endures nature’s curveballs which claim millions of lives. Pandemics such as plague, cholera, Spanish flu have laughed in the face of our medical advancements and struck the weakest section of the population the hardest. The situation is no different this time with coronavirus, maybe worse.

COVID-19 has created unique challenges for different segments of the population and struck at the very heart of the machinery designed to protect people from such calamities. The case in point is of social sector- the NGOs and volunteers who are working at the ground level, often even without the basic facilities. Here are some practical issues being faced by them:

  • Social workers work unarmed in the line of fire: Health workers in India aren’t fully equipped to deal with calamities such as COVID-19. According to a report by Buzzfeed 900,000 ASHA workers who have been tasked with giving house calls to potential coronavirus carriers have not been given masks or hand sanitizers. This is a fatal mistake that will not only increase the risk for workers but may also result in an exponential rise in the number of cases.

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  • Social imbalance due to disruption of existing community-led programs: The welfare programs being conducted by the NGOs at the community level have been severely marred by the spread of coronavirus. As a consequence, all the positive effects of such programs on the participants and ultimate recipients are slowly withering away. NGOs, which are especially working on issues related to women and children at the community level have been playing a major role in protecting the interests of girls and women. However, due to the rightful call for social distancing such programs have come to a near halt and thus causing many concerning issues. For example, the number of cases of domestic violence is already on a rise since the COVID-19 outbreak. 
  • Administrative Issues: Indian legislative process and working with quasi-judicial bodies especially in tier two and three states is heavily dependent upon manual processes which require multiple face to face interactions. For example, underage children need to be produced in front of Child Welfare Committees in order to stop trafficking. 

Due to the rightful call for social distancing such programs have come to a near halt and thus causing many concerning issues. For example, the number of cases of domestic violence is already on a rise since the COVID-19 outbreak. 

  • Partial to Full Withdrawal of Volunteers: NGOs such as Aahan which are almost entirely self-funded have to rely on volunteers such as football trainers, hygiene specialists, artists, etc to carry on the development activities in the hard to access tribal areas. However, we can no longer ask them to do so as it means putting their lives at risk. This may lead to loss of continuity of the program at some places. 
  • Working with Sex workers: While many professions seeing a gradual decline in business, sex workers are witnessing a sharper fall. With almost no source of revenue, it is difficult to safeguard their children who are now at home all the time due to shutdown. These women cannot even benefit from the benevolence of the general public who are coming forward to lend a helping hand to other women. 

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  • Maintaining Hygiene with Little or No Water: According to the water.org, over 90 million Indians lack access to safe water. The situation is worse in tribal areas. The water is less, toilets are either non-existent or without water connection. Maintaining basic hygiene is difficult, let alone having the luxury of washing hands with soap several times a day. The situation is such that the workers at the grass-root level have to continue working with no proper hand wash facility and women have to walk many kilometers to get portable water.
  • Increase in the incidence of trafficking: Lack of employment stressed administration and hunger makes it easy for traffickers to lure parents into sending their underage daughters to work in cities in exchange of little money. Though there is no data to fall back on, but our collective experience indicates that these crimes have normally amplified in the past after calamities like earthquakes, etc as it leads to disruption in the administrative mechanisms. This makes it difficult for the workers at the grassroot level to convince parents and even girls against migrating to cities. 

The water is less, toilets are either non-existent or without water connection. Maintaining basic hygiene is difficult, let alone having the luxury of washing hands with soap several times a day.

Every calamity leaves behind a horrid story of destruction and we must prepare for the worst. Given the complex socio-economic conditions, the vulnerable sectors and sections of India will feel the impact of this pandemic long after it abates. The economic slowdown, increase in unemployment and rise in trauma is imminent. It demands work at war footing by the government, NGOs and society at large to minimize its impact.  

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At Aahan we are educating the tribal people in their native languages on the ways to protect themselves and stop the spread of coronavirus. We are leveraging mobile as a medium and WhatsApp, Google apps, Facebook as tools to facilitate this awareness campaign. Our staff at the ground level is stopping rumors, giving tips to make masks at home and maintaining calm.

These are trying times for all of us and whether we believe or not in word and deed, we are in this together. We must practice social distancing but come together as one in support of each other through prayers and acts of kindness.

Rashmi Tiwari is the Founder of Aahan Foundation. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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