Trust, Institutions, and Collective Action: Rapid Study of Community Responses to COVID-19 in Bangladesh

The effectiveness of a nation’s responses to COVID-19 largely depends on how its citizens perceive and act upon them based on their needs and trust. With that in mind, in partnership with researchers from the American University and Georgetown University and the Development Research Initiative (dRi), we studied the collective community responses to COVID-19 from 20 purposively selected communities in Bangladesh. The study found that even though the people were reasonably aware of the preventative measures of COVID-19, they could not afford to maintain the measures, particularly social distancing, for a variety of reasons. People’s hope for surviving COVID-19 rested on the promise of assistance from the central government, but many people reported losing trust in the government because of delayed assistance and confusion about what would be provided, to whom, when, and how. Limited support forced most of the people to break the lockdown rule and go out in search of jobs.   

Researchers: Dr Naomi Hossain; Dr Tariq Omar Ali; Dr Mirza M. Hassan; Md Mahan Ul Hoque

Partners: Development Research Initiative (dRi)

Timeline: Phase 1: April; Phase 2: May 2020

Status: Completed

Contact: Dr Mirza M. Hassan


Journal Article: The Moral and Political Economy of the Pandemic in Bangladesh: Weak States and Strong Societies During COVID-19

Policy Brief: Trust, Institutions, and Collective Action: How are Communities Responding to COVID-19 in Bangladesh?

Blog: Amidst short supply of leadership and sanitisers, hearts find solace in community-driven small initiatives

Presentation slides: Trust, Institutions, and Collective Action: How are Communities Responding to COVID-19 in Bangladesh?


In response to the ongoing COVID-19, the Government of Bangladesh (GoB), among numerous measures, declared an extended lockdown, deployed the Army to enforce social distancing, increased the number of intensive care unit (ICU) beds for COVID-19 patients, and promised a stimulus package of BDT 100,000 crore. However, the effectiveness of the responses to COVID-19 largely depends on citizens’ cooperation with the government in maintaining the lockdown, testing capacity, and treatment regimes.

With that in mind, we conducted a rapid research study about collective local responses to COVID-19 from 20 purposively selected communities across Bangladesh. Communities were selected to provide an illustration of different types of setting (urban, rural, etc.), nature of the impact of COVID-19 (case numbers, degree and timing of lockdown), and local economic conditions and livelihoods (industry, agriculture, poverty levels, etc.). The study was designed to inform the government and its partners about how their policies and communications are being received and acted upon by communities.


The aim of this study was to shed light on the following three distinct aspects of this crisis as experienced by communities:

  • Experience of the lockdown, i.e. how, if at all, the lockdown is affecting communities, and how is it being perceived by the people;
  • Community needs, i.e. what do communities need to survive this crisis; and
  • Institutions, key actors, and trust, i.e. which actors or institutions are coming forward to help the communities and who do communities trust for information and assistance.


This study was designed to produce snapshot case studies of community dynamics in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. A short semi-structured interview checklist was administered to 123 individuals selected from 20 communities in Bangladesh. Community research sites were selected to represent:

  • a range of severity/duration of lockdown and reported COVID-19 caseloads;
  • urban, peri-urban/small town, and rural sites;
  • ecologically fragile areas; and
  • different livelihoods and poverty levels.

Sites covered 18 districts (three were in Dhaka district, one in Dhaka city), numerous unions, and wards that the research team had previously studied and had existing contacts. Snowball methods were used to identify key informants for interviews. Key informants were selected from specified occupation and social groups, and sampled to enable a broad but reasonably well-informed rapid sketch of each community to emerge. Multiple informants from a single site also enabled a degree of triangulation of findings.

Findings and Recommendations

It emerged from the research that the lockdown was widely accepted as necessary. Many people were already adhering to social distancing and staying at home as much as possible; but after the announcement of multiple deaths from Coronavirus in the second week of April 2020, panic took hold across the communities. Consequently, most people were now accepting the lockdown as a matter of survival. However, certain groups of people were not adhering to the lockdown. These groups included young men, people who were unaware of how serious the disease was, people who believed that God will protect them, and people who needed to go out to look for work or relief. Police and army patrolling was mostly welcomed by the local people, despite or perhaps because of the fear they induced. In most locations, local authorities and officials were working hard, often with community leaders, to enforce the lockdown. However, most respondents felt that religious leaders had played a mixed role, only recently encouraging praying from home instead of going to crowded mosques, for instance.

In terms of what communities need, it was clear that healthcare was being adversely affected. Most of the people were finding it increasingly harder to get healthcare services as medical staff were unavailable, while others were more reluctant to go to hospitals in fear of contracting the virus and being quarantined if tested positive. Frontline health service staff reported fearing contracting the virus because of a lack of provision of personal protective equipment (PPE).

As most people could not work, those reliant on daily wages had seen dramatic income declines, some of whom even had already cut spending and food consumption. Yet, very little assistance was been received by the affected households. In most places, only a small number of households received some help. This help appeared to be mainly from private individuals and small welfare funds or groups. Government relief and non-government organization (NGO) assistance were not important sources of help.

While people’s hope for surviving COVID-19 rested on the promise of assistance from the central government, many people also reported losing trust in the government because of delayed assistance and confusion about what will be provided, to whom, when, and how. In general, people appeared to be reasonably well-informed about the Coronavirus and the lockdown. They did not, however, fully trust official information, although the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) was given some credit for regular, timely, and reliable information. Most people relied on independent television news and, to a lesser extent, on Facebook, which, according to many people, had proven unreliable because of the false rumors it circulated.

In these times of crisis, people’s trust in official messages is boosted by independent verification. The government, therefore, should invite independent scrutiny from national experts on public health and social protection to comment on their plans. Moreover, to restore people’s trust in the government, unambiguous announcements about what, how, for whom, and when relief will be distributed should be made and widely shared across television news outlets, radio, and social media. At the same time, efforts should be made to strengthen the public healthcare service. Finally, punitive measures by the army, police, local authorities, or local virus vigilantes need to be discouraged and rights violations and abuses investigated and stopped. These sort of punitive measures greatly demoralize people who face the greatest hardship at this time and are likely to prompt resistance.

The rapid research is believed to provide valuable insights into how communities are dealing with COVID-19, their gaps in knowledge, and recommend the best ways to prepare communities to support the national fight against the crisis. The results were shared with the government to inform the response strategy going forward. With an evolving crisis, this research will also help analyze and understand the evolving socio-economic situation in the coming three months.