Unsung heroes for urban informal settlement dwellers during COVID-19 pandemic

By Wafa Alam for Kalerkantho Online, 7 April 2020

‘Our job is to bring awareness to the community. Who will do it if not us?’ said a community health worker working in informal settlements in Dhaka amid the global COVID-19 pandemic.

The global pandemic known as COVID-19 is an unprecedented crisis and brings with it many predicaments particularly for the poor and marginalized people of our society.

People living in informal settlements are hit the hardest as they have very limited to zero knowledge regarding coronavirus disease and the ways of protecting themselves and preventing it from spreading in the community. Most of these informal settlements have poor ventilation and drainage, and many lack access to basic services like water and sanitation.

Moreover, residents often share kitchen and toilets, making them particularly more vulnerable to the spread of infections.

In situations such as these, frontline workers are the only ray of hope for these marginalized communities. Many NGO frontline workers are now going door to door to give information and help people prevent the spread of COVID-19 in these communities.

Till date, with the help of its frontline staff, BRAC has spread information related to COVID-19 to around 4.7 million people in rural villages and in urban slums.

Frontline workers from BRAC are creating awareness by informing people about washing hands regularly, not touching face or mouth, avoiding large gathering, the importance of social distancing and the use of gloves and masks when going out for essentials. They are also putting up stickers in the community with information on the signs and symptoms of COVID-19, and important telephone numbers for people to call when they experience these symptoms.

However, working in the field during a pandemic is not as easy. These frontline workers are faced with many challenges as they continue working. There is now an increased fear of transmission of the disease, due to which many frontline workers are facing resistance from the community, even though they are following safety measures such as speaking to them from a distance of 3 feet as advised by World Health Organization (WHO).

In a phone conversation, one of the female community health workers mentioned that people do not like that they are still working in the field at a time like this.

Besides, the social stigma surrounding coronavirus disease is also becoming a challenge for these workers, as people refuse to talk to them about their health conditions. She said, ‘When I go to the field now, people ask me why I am here. They say it is not allowed and they also refuse to talk to us.’

Many of these urban poor living in informal settlements work as rickshaw pullers, tea sellers, mass transport workers, housemaids etc. Following the lockdown, they have been out of work temporarily, and are having difficulties making their ends meet.

Frontline workers find it difficult to convince people to follow their advice. In situations such as these, we cannot expect people to spend money on items such as face masks and soap. She also said, ‘People in these communities are very poor.

They can hardly afford a day’s meal. We are trying our best but how can we expect them to buy soap to wash their hands every 20 minutes?’

In addition to all that, having never worked during such a pandemic before, many of these frontline workers are very anxious about the whole scenario. Many are having to deal with increased work burden – they are working on weekends and government holidays as they have to cover many households and make sure that the information
has reached the maximum number of people. They are constantly worried about the safety of their family members. One of the frontline workers said, ‘I have ageing parents at home. I worry about them a lot. I am always scared of bringing the disease home.’

Despite all these worries, she continues to work in the field day in, day out as she believes this is her responsibility and the community relies on her for all the information. She has taken her own measures like wearing gloves, apron and mask when in the field and disposing or washing them with disinfectant. She has also started the practice of washing her hands before entering her house as a safety measure. She believes that if she maintains cleanliness and hygiene, she can keep herself and her family safe from this deadly disease.

Awareness is the key to preventing the spread of such diseases in informal settlements and these frontline workers are the true unsung heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic for the residents of these informal settlements.

Read the original news story.

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