For the last 60 years the Coady Institute has been working with community leaders and organisations supporting leadership and knowledge building at the grassroots level. Many of our 9,000 graduates from over 133 countries, and partners across the world, are on the frontlines in the fight against coronavirus. Their stories give us a glimpse of how local communities are coping with and responding to the global crisis. Below are some examples on four key issues: production of face masks, awareness raising, protection of the most vulnerable, and food systems.
Face masks: The most pressing and immediate issue since the outbreak has been the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), including face masks that provide first line of defence against the virus. As the richest countries deployed millions of dollars to produce and secure the masks, demand surged globally, leaving the emerging economies more vulnerable. How would India with a population of 1.3 billion people and a fragile healthcare infrastructure (0.7 hospital beds per 1000 population as compared to 2.9 for the US, and 0.8 physicians per 1000 population as compared to 2.6 for the US) deal with the surging demand of masks?
The answer came from an unexpected place: poor women, most of whom are living in the rural economy, and who had probably never heard of such masks before. As early as March 18, before the entire country went into a national lockdown, about 500 women from our long-time partner the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) learned how to make the masks and produced half a million masks for distribution to the association’s membership of over 1.7 million women workers in the informal sector.
Across the 24 states of India a little over 65,000 rural women, part of around 15,000 self-help groups (SHG), produced over 20 million masks by April 12. And given that these groups are spread across the length and breadth of the country, this decentralised production model is going to involve less logistics and time for delivering it to local hospitals and customers.
The groups are making sure that their masks meet quality standards and while these masks may not be at a level to replace the N-95 masks, they are still filling the immediate need.
A key take-away here is the leadership shown by rural women micro entrepreneurs to mobilise their social capital to complete the complex task of producing and distributing millions of masks across their country on short notice, and in a lockdown situation.
Awareness raising: There is stigma attached to such diseases in many countries in Africa and Asia, which makes the infected person and family even more vulnerable. Responding to this reality, our Ethiopian partner the Organisation for Women in Self Employment (WISE) swung into action as soon as the first case of COVID-19 was found and is now leading a national Task Force to raise awareness to combat and control the spread. Meanwhile in Uganda, groups such as women’s Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) are digitizing their services and outreach at far greater speed due to the pandemic. Besides the financial services, they are using the technology (video messaging, community radio) to spread much needed awareness on the outbreak and how communities need to prepare and respond. This kind of messaging from trusted sources is especially important given the stigma. In India, SEWA started a safety and security campaign in early March and piloted innovative methods of working and conducting operations while creating awareness about “social distancing” across India, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
Looking after the most vulnerable: We have rapidly learned that this public health crisis is affecting people disproportionally across the social and economic strata and is fast becoming a humanitarian and economic crisis. From African Americans in Harlem to daily wage earners in Lagos, Nigeria to slum dwellers in Dharavi, India, this crisis is already putting the lives and livelihoods of the most vulnerable at risk. Collectively they are huge in numbers and so is their suffering. Be it the informal sector workers—migrant labourers, street vendors, cigarette rollers, chai walas, rickshaw pullers, domestic workers, waste pickers, delivery boys, construction workers, agricultural labourers —or the malnourished children with weak immune system, lactating mothers with low incomes, people with disabilities, single mothers, widows, and others in difficult situations.
We have also learned that the identification of such groups is the first important step towards helping them. Governments have a central role in this, but they cannot do it alone. A coalition of 30 NGOs called Rapid Rural Community Response to Covid-19 (RCRC) formed by some of our partners and graduates is helping address this issue at scale in India. This coalition is using its outreach to over six million families across 12 states and a network of over 10,000 women self-help groups to identify and collect data about the most vulnerable, like the migrant labours, and work alongside local governments and others to provide immediate shelter, food and medical help.
Food systems: Emerging economies are equally affected by the disruptions in the global food systems, coupled with the COVID-19 partial or complete lockdowns. The supply of essential goods and services has been severely disrupted as well. While these lockdowns are a huge problem for the traditional ways in which supply chains used to function in these economies, it is opening up new opportunities for local businesses and community institutions.
Farmer Producer Companies in India for example are buying produce from local farmers to retail locally, given that the centralised wholesale markets are closed.
Innovative grassroots business models such as RUDI, a rural distribution multi-trading company owned and managed by rural women, procures grains and spices from over 45,000 farmers through its local centres. Local women are employed to process and package the products. These products are then delivered within the local and neighbouring communities through RUDI Bens, a network of last-mile saleswomen who make home deliveries. They can do all this while observing the social distancing norms and use mobile-based apps for accepting orders and inventory management.
Similar examples of community innovation and entrepreneurship are emerging elsewhere. For example, a Coady graduate is leading the revival of community grocery stores on the island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. These community stores, which had almost been abandoned due to competition from big chain stores, have now found a new lease on life.
All these stories point to the ability of grassroots organisations and community structures to rapidly leverage their contact with local communities to mobilise mass action. Just as they have played a vital role in responding to the crisis, governments should leverage their efforts in the stabilization and recovery as well.