How do we break the chain of coronavirus infection?
Despite the claims made a few months ago that Bangladesh has successfully—more successfully than many western countries—beat back the coronavirus, the virus has returned with a vengeance. In the past month, there have been serious spikes in the rates of infections, hospitalisations, and deaths. The government has, therefore, declared a lockdown to deal with the situation.
In my view, lockdown is not the right answer in the long run because its repeated use may paralyse the economy, causing more devastation. More importantly, a lockdown merely represents some temporary, time-bound restrictions, not specific interventions for breaking the chain of new waves of the virus. To permanently break the chain, we need to take some specific actions during and following the lockdown, in addition to expeditiously making vaccines available.
During the past year, The Hunger Project (THP) has been pursuing a Coronavirus Resilient Villages (CRV) initiative in about 1,200 villages around the country. The CRV model is based on the WHO guideline of "risk communication and community engagement", requiring changes in people's behaviour. THP feels that the operations of this initiative, supported by the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), would be useful in formulating interventions to stop the virus in its tracks.
Since 2015, THP has been implementing an SDG Union Strategy, involving a three-way partnership between the people, their elected representatives, and a group of volunteers—representing the grassroots level civil society—to localise and achieve SDGs. The CRV initiative is leveraged on this strategy. Last year, the government issued a circular to form Coronavirus Prevention Committees in Unions, which unfortunately existed largely on paper. THP has reorganised and activated these committees by involving the gatekeepers of the community, including the Union Parishad chairs and members. It has also created CRV Committees in villages, with representatives from all walks of life.
Involvement of the community and creating its ownership are critically important goals of the CRV initiative. From the outset the volunteers tried to bring home the realisation among the villagers that "we are in it together".They sought to create the mindset that only the individual safety of each person will ensure the collective safety of everyone in the village.
For risk communication and behavioural change, the volunteers carried out 3W campaigns to promote washing hands, watching distances, and wearing masks. To create behavioural change, which is difficult and time-consuming, trained volunteers repeatedly took turns sitting with 20-25 families, using specialised communication materials. They held courtyard meetings to create awareness among mothers against child marriage, violence against women, stigmatisation, and nutrition. In addition, the volunteers recruited imams, priests, and other social leaders to dispel misinformation, disinformation, and myths about the virus. They also helped the villagers get tested, connect to tele-medicine services, get registered for vaccination, and go into isolation/quarantine.
The volunteers worked closely with community clinics and sought to make their management committees active. THP also donated digital thermometers, oximeters, and blood pressure machines to these clinics.
Furthermore, the trained volunteers extended helping hands to those who had lost their livelihoods. They helped eligible individuals enrol in the government's social safety net schemes. Using community philanthropy, they collected food, money, and materials worth about Tk 4 crores to distribute among vulnerable families.
A quick survey in THP's working areas revealed that the CRV initiative has been producing very positive results. The rate of mask-wearing in the working areas is nearly 60 percent, compared to about 30 percent in other areas. In addition, the level of awareness among the villagers in these is relatively higher and the number of coronavirus patients and deaths are lower.
We have important lessons to learn from the CRV experiment. One of the lessons is the relevance of experiences of our Liberation War for the current pandemic. In 1971, our father of the nation, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, asked the people to create fortresses in their villages and neighbourhoods against the enemy. Our people did so, even risking their lives, which enabled us to defeat the mighty Pakistani army, who were highly trained and equipped with modern armaments.
Like during the Liberation War, we will now have to initiate another "people's war" against the coronavirus, which is invisible and hence, can be underestimated and ignored. Again, every individual will have to confront this invisible enemy, not with armaments, but by changing our attitudes and behaviour.
Changing people's behaviour requires honest and transparent communication. However, in the past, communications from some of our policymakers were often misleading and boastful. More seriously, they often claimed that people do not listen to them and do not abide by the health regulations, essentially blaming the victims. In addition, the vaccine rollout seemed to be designed to cater to the educated class with internet access, ignoring the villagers, and also hurt the credibility of the policymakers.
According to WHO, coronavirus will not go away soon, notwithstanding the discovery of the vaccines, and we will have to become resilient. To do so, we will have to rise above our petty partisan interests and unitedly confront the coronavirus in every village and neighbourhood, using the advice of the experts. In doing so, we will have to take people into confidence, and the government, non-government organisations, and local government bodies will have to work shoulder to shoulder to create resilience against the virus.
The CRV approach is designed to create such resilience. In a recent webinar held on April 8, 2021, our planning minister and many experts such as Mushtuq Husain, Muzaherul Huq, Benazir Ahmed, Lenin Chowdhury, and Abu Jamil Faisel recognised the innovativeness and effectiveness of the CRV model. For example, according to Mushtuq Husain, the coronavirus will not go away on its own. Only with CRV-like interventions in villages and cities will we be able to break the chain of virus in even a matter of months and become a model for other countries.
Dr Badiul Alam Majumdar is Global Vice President and Country Director at The Hunger Project.