On 11 March, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed that the COVID-19 health crisis had become a global pandemic. Over 500,000 cases of infection were confirmed globally in WHO’s “COVID-19 Situation Report – 67” published on 27 March, 2020, of which 2,932 infections and 105 deaths were counted in the South East Asian region. By then, Bangladesh was reeling from a countrywide “general holiday” imposed by the Government in an effort to control contagion.

The Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), Bangladesh confirmed the first case of coronavirus infection in Bangladesh on 8 March, 2020. On 26 March, the Government of Bangladesh shut down all non-essential public and private institutions including schools, universities, restaurants, shops, offices, and transport. As a result, approximately  30 million urban slum dwellers  (estimated data from https://data.worldbank.org/country/Bangladesh)- some of the most marginalised groups in society comprising third gender individuals, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, and aged and single women, who survive on working in garments factories, daily wage employment, and the informal sector—were sent into social and economic shock because of the lockdown.

Left out of disaster and epidemic contingency plans, the urban poor live with a unique set of difficulties. They live in tiny spaces with poor hygiene and sanitation. Diseases can spread like wildfire in their cramped communities, and when they do, most residents cannot afford soap, masks, medicine, or even three healthy meals a day. Lack of education means they are not fully aware of the bare minimum that it takes to prevent infection.

“I was really scared. If I died, there would be no one to look after my daughter.”
- Jahanara Begum, a 60-year-old mother of an unemployed woman in Mirpur, Dhaka

In order to evaluate and address the impact of COVID on these settlements, UNDP’s National Urban Poverty Reduction Programme (NUPRP) or Livelihood Improvements of Urban Poor Communities Project (LIUPCP) carried out a Socio Economic Assessment (Human Development Research Centre, August 2020) of COVID 19 impact on the urban poor. NUPRP/LIUPCP implemented the COVID-19 Emergency Response for three months between March and May 2020, in collaboration with the Local Government Division (LGD) under the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Co-operatives, Government of Bangladesh, the Foreign and Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) across 19 City Corporations and Municipalities. About 1,772 Community-Based Organisations and 10,998 Project Staff across 19 Cities implemented the emergency response.

Impact of the COVID-19

“Whatever little food we can buy, we feed it to our children. We are too hungry to sleep at night.”
- A resident of Patuakhali

This experience was shared by the 2.9 million people in and around the targeted cities who had become “newly poor” after the COVID-19, according to NUPRP’s Socio Economic Assessment; the figure could rise to an estimated 4.3 million or more if the lockdown and employment persisted.

The implications were far-reaching. Nearly nine out of 10 households fell into urgent need of food, and only 30 percent of pregnant and lactating mothers and less than 10 percent of children aged 6-23 could consume protein-rich food items at crucial stages of their life.

While nutrition remained a distant possibility, more than 90 percent of household members, in three out of every 10 households, had to be treated for other diseases in addition to the coronavirus. Only 59.4 percent of eligible households immunised their children. The consequent damage to mental health came as no surprise—70 percent of beneficiary respondents suffered from mild depression and one-fourth of the respondents suffered from alarming levels of depression. For over 59 percent of the women and girls and close to 26 percent of the children stuck at home, this meant facing verbal and physical violence.

At least one member in over half of the beneficiary households became unemployed. Over 80 percent of households had to dip into savings, close to 70 percent could not pay their rent on time, around 11 percent had to sell their assets, and close to 10 percent returned to villages, where work opportunities are minimal. Children in more than one-fifth of the households could no longer continue their education.

COVID-19 EMERGENCY RESPONSE

“I have seen changes in people’s behaviour  with my own eyes. They now wash hands frequently. I will continue this habit for the rest of my life.”
- Nayan, a transgender in Mymensingh

Nayan’s community was one among the 3 million urban poor reached through the awareness campaigns run by the programme.

As an immediate measure, travelling through heavy monsoon rain at a time when transport and supply of products were at a standstill because of the pandemic, NUPRP arranged food assistance for 77,560 households. Over 95 percent of households received hand washing materials and over 83 percent had hand washing stations installed in their communities, accessible for children, people with disabilities, and able bodied individuals. Frontline staff, local government officials, and health staff were provided with 605 Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), 42,625 masks, and 63,432 hygiene kits. 385 health professionals were trained in COVID-19 management.

Some form of grant-in-aid was provided to over 92 percent of households, over half of which came directly from the NUPRP. At-risk communities were also informed about coronavirus’s symptoms and precautionary measures such as washing hands, maintaining distance, and vitamins for the elderly, through posters, leaflets, and public announcements. Community members were guided on how to save money, take out loans, receive skills-based training, and sort out issues of domestic violence through community counselling.

Given the barriers posed by the weather, fear of contamination, and the scarce goods and services, communication and coordination across departments were often stretched thin at different points of the initiative. It highlighted the need for a reserve of training, materials, and funds which can come to the rescue during such unexpected emergencies. And yet despite the obstacles, NUPRP was able to reach out to 265,752 of the most vulnerable households in urban slums, 89 percent of whom shared that they were satisfied with the access to services and information provided by the programme. The key findings of the assessment and COVID Response are highlighted in the LINK (Communications folder)

As of 21 January 2021, 529,687 people have been infected and 7,950 have died in Bangladesh, according to IEDCR. As the second surge of the COVID-19 is being expected even as the first round of vaccines are being tested and/or rolled out in other parts of the world, preparedness and coordination across communities, development agencies, and government bodies will be more crucial than ever, combined with the timely dissemination of information and awareness carried out by the media and civil society organisations.

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