Amidst Short Supply of Leadership and Sanitizers, Hearts Find Solace in Community-Driven Small Initiatives

While scientists, public health officials, and policymakers continue their struggles to combat the outbreak of a global pandemic, people around the world are losing trust in their leaders. During this global crisis of leadership and adequate public health planning, one thing has continuously been our glimmer of hope, especially in a developing country like Bangladesh. The hope lies within the recent rise of initiatives from small groups of people and from existing entrepreneurs and social ventures.

The most amazing part of these initiatives is that the people are channeling their grief and expressing human solidarity by donating to the most vulnerable community of this country. As of the time I am writing this, Bidyanondo, a small social venture, has been able to secure a donation of over BDT 1,45,61,074, with the aim of distributing food to five lac marginalised people who might lose their income sources during the lockdown of Dhaka city. It was sad that one of their pages was taken down by the Facebook authority because a group of people reported it for some unknown reasons. When it happened for the second time, I lost hope. I lost hope in humanity and in peace; but they did not. These headstrong people continued to advertise their initiatives, along with the hardships they were facing through another page. And people all across the country started to promote it even more than before. Eventually, not only they were successful to bring back their page, but they were also able to secure more donation than their initial goal: a true example of turning negativity into positive branding—make lemonade when lemons are thrown. They have delivered food to the marginalised people and plan to continue doing so. They also have finished making personal protective equipment (PPE) for doctors with the approval from the Health Minister, and will start distributing it soon. They are even careful about deliveries. Their volunteers sign a disclaimer form which takes their consent regarding the risk they might face. The volunteers also have to declare health issues and agree on staying quarantined for 14 days inside of their home. The beautiful pictures of the volunteers maintaining the protective measures give a feeling that can only be felt seeing the first ray of sunshine in the morning. Moreover, they started to disinfect public transport and got a request from the Health Minister’s office to disinfect their offices.

When I came across the initiative of producing four lac PPE by two other ventures with the logistic support of an international corporation, I was wondering how the supply chain management will work here. Before I was done with my train of thoughts, I came across a Facebook post from the founder of another social venture, Kotha. She had posted a Google sheet and urged people, particularly health professionals to fill it up with information that can bridge the gap in information between suppliers of PPE and healthcare professionals. I also found a group of students who collaborated and decided to give groceries worth 100 to 110 BDT per person to the marginalised people each day. They managed to reach out to 150 people in a day, all of which are rickshaw pullers and CNG drivers. There is another initiative from Garments Shanghati that aims to reach the garment workers with food, soap, mask, and sanitizer.

The beauty of community-driven initiatives is that it gives the community control over resources. These creative initiatives, however, are facing difficulties because of their informal nature. In this scenario, our best approach would be giving them logistical and administrative support from the formal sector of the country, be it from government or non-government entities. These initiatives can be our floating boats for the upcoming few weeks, at least till the authority comes up with a concrete plan for the longer-term. The public health sector can join forces with these initiatives, which would make both parties stronger.

We always knew that our resources were limited. I personally believe that it is not the time to dissect what our government could have done, but did not or could not. Yes, this is a matter of frustration and concern too. But did we not go through this kind of frustration before? We did, and during those time we, as a nation, also learned where our limitations lie and where our strengths are; one of our strengths are these beautiful minds who come up with brilliant initiatives during a national crisis. So, instead of ruminating on our failures, I would rather focus on appreciating the initiatives and their success. These community-driven small initiatives can be the saviors for the marginalised people and vulnerable health sector in the coming few weeks, only if the formal sectors keep joining hands. I also feel research institutes and development organisations have their roles in this too. Among them, BRAC Institute of Governance and Development of BRAC University, for instance, is kickstarting a Rapid Research Response to COVID-19 based on digital ethnography to document these initiatives, so that, as a nation, we can learn and be better prepared in future.

Iffat Zahan is a Research Associate in the Research, Policy and Governance team at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development, BRAC University. 

Photo 1 : A Bidyanondo volunteer sprays disinfectant to help fight the COVID-19 outbreak. Credit- Bidyanondo
Photo 2 : By Raman Talpada from Pixabay