We must listen to the voices from the frontlines of the pandemic

Inundated houses in Sunamganj on July 15, 2020. Photo: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP

One of the distinguishing features of the global Covid-19 pandemic has been to expose who the frontline workers around the world are and who the frontline victims of the pandemic are, both from the public health perspective and as a result of the impact of lockdown measures.

In the developed countries, it has been the health workers in hospitals and care homes as well as public transport workers, shopkeepers and delivery people, while in the major cities of the developing countries, it has been the daily labourers living in the informal settlements in major cities like Dhaka, Delhi, Mumbai and Manila in Asia and Nairobi and Lagos in Africa.

However, over the last few months, a number of lessons are emerging from the experiences in many developing countries on how to engage with the frontline communities. These are important lessons as we move forward to tackle climate change, which has not stopped because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Indeed, in Bangladesh, we were hit by super cyclone Amphan just two months ago and are currently being hit by major floods around the Brahmaputra river.

The first lesson is that in cities, where the local communities had either grassroots community groups or locally embedded NGOs, they were able to react and adapt to the lockdown measures that were imposed by national governments and these did not require heavy handed policing to be enforced.

They were also able to assist the relevant health and support authorities in providing health checks and quarantining where needed, as well as ensuring food supply for the needy. Settlements and slums where such local grassroots community groups did not exist were the worst sufferers, both from Covid-19 infections as well as lockdown conditions.

A major lesson to take forward into the Covid-19 recovery plans and investments is to build on and strengthen these local grassroots groups in order to enable them to continue to help the vulnerable communities in these big cities.

Another lesson has been the numbers of migrants that have been living almost unnoticed or uncounted, as they did not have permanent residence and were not voters. In many cases, particularly in India, many of the migrants living in the informal settlements in the big cities were forced to walk back to their places of origin even though they were hundreds of kilometres away. Whether they will return to the cities once the crisis is over is not certain yet.

In order to give voice to these grassroots community groups and their actions, my colleagues at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development have been talking to many of these groups, especially those affiliated with Slum Dwellers International as well as NGOs in Bangladesh and elsewhere, to produce and disseminate a weekly series of blogs from different grassroots communities in Bangladesh, India, and other countries across Asia and Africa. This series of Voices from the Frontlines will run every week for the next year and will also include networking of these grassroots groups across towns and countries, as well as enabling them to better engage with local and national governments to allow their voices to feed into decision making in the near future.

It is important that further decision making to tackle vulnerability to climate change should build on supporting the grassroots community groups as well as enhancing their inputs into design, implementation and even monitoring of the investments that are being and will be made for the future development of cities and countries. This will be a new and necessary paradigm shift in national and local development planning and implementation that will need to be embraced and adopted by all sensible governments and development partners as they develop their recovery plans.

Future planning and investments need to focus much more on enhancing the resilience and capacities of local communities to withstand not just public health emergencies like Covid-19, but also the much bigger emergency of climate change.

Originally this article was published on July 22, 2020 at Daily Star. The author Prof. Saleemul Huq is the director of the International Centre for Climate Change and Development (ICCCAD) at the Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).
Email: saleemul.huq@icccad.net