Covid-19 situation beyond the city space: combating the various humanitarian crises prompted by the pandemic

Every phenomenon that is undergoing an altercation in the world right now, is under the devastating influence of Covid-19. The normal course of human life has been facing a stagnation for the past few months, dragging people towards numerous, unforeseen challenges of survival. Under such circumstances, the plight of underprivileged women and children, is often remaining unattended, to debate which and seek plausible solutions, the founder-secretary of Ebong Alap, Sarmistha Dutta Gupta, opened an online discussion to various social workers, health workers and government officials to share their inputs and experiences to help the society perceive the situation of these people, whose troubles it has been oblivious to. Nishantika Kundu reports on this webinar held on 25th September, 2020.

Dutta Gupta mentioned how the twin devastation by Covid-19 and Amphan cyclone gravely affected the living conditions of the impoverished population, along with gender discriminatory practices on technological access. Therefore, the distinctive approach that Datta Gupta’s organisation undertook, of listening to the problems of these marginalised people by directly talking to them, revealed their obstacles, unique to their geographical locations. This initiative, entitled ‘Pranto theke bolchhi’ which translates to ‘speaking from the margins’, enabled a few representatives of these selected districts across West Bengal, to present their complaints and observations related to poverty, malnourishment and education of children in their own regions. The issues ranged from child labour, inaccessibility of technology, increased rate of child marriages, unemployed status of street musicians, artists and bauls, scarcity of vaccines, supplements and necessary medication for neo-natal care to untimely death by tiger attacks or infections, in forest regions.  

Screenshot from the vlog

The webinar focused on the detailed discussion of the aforementioned topics by speakers from various domains of the social circle, both public and private sector. Although most of the speakers spoke about increased child marriage and school dropouts during the period of lockdown, some of them highlighted the environmental aspects, financial struggles and a few other obstacles that do not surface but have been impeding the progress of the developmental activities that these people are passionately engaged with. Swati Bhattacharjee, a journalist and social worker started off by mentioning an “institutional inaction” of the various private and government apparatus, both NGOs or Panchayats, where there’s a lack of volunteers who would assist in distributing the aids to the indigent. She mentioned the passive approach of some schools in renewing their classes online with a proper strategy, by providing a count of 12 lakh children who are undergoing this ‘no education’ phase. She seconded Sipra Nandi, who represented North 24 Parganas in the vlog, on the fact that a section of the male children are engaged in selling of various items in lack of employment in the family and the economic independence that it is generating, are barring them from attending school any further. To this, Girls are being denied technology even when the families are able to afford them, in order to control their freedom, precisely their sexuality, a practice that is being perpetuated even when the education of the girls are being hindered. Swati also clarified the experience of a health worker from the vlog, about the harassment that is meted out to ASHA workers, by doctors or nurses in government hospitals when they accompany pregnant women and the sickly, often risking their lives by directly operating within the containment zones; suggesting a change in this non-responsive behaviour of the society.

Screen shot from the webinar

Sankari Mondal provided an eloquent and expressive anecdote on the condition of underprivileged people in the various regions of the Sundarbans and their difficulties have catapulted post Amphan, as farmlands have submerged under saline water from extensive flooding. Combative measures to better this situation would be:

  1. Setting up more branches of banks to help people access money easily.
  2. Stopping displacement of Sundarbans people, by including them in the tourism programs to promote homestay for tourists and secure an income.
  3. Construction of a functional honest and hardworking committee to oversee the construction of damaged dams and river banks. 
  4. Adopting the orphans of these areas to help them achieve their aspirations.
  5. Engaging women in self-dependent jobs.

Environmentalist Kalyan Rudra carried on with the discussion by drawing attention of the audience towards the environmental aspects, centring around the backward, flood-prone districts. He emphasised on the serious issue of rising water level which amplified by Amphan flooding, displaced many, calling for an immediate requirement of rehabilitation, before these people can observe precautionary measures to fight the ongoing pandemic. He spoke of the life risk; the freshly unemployed people are running under the pandemic by venturing into the forest to collect honey or other commercial items to trade. These people, he mentioned are dying painful deaths from tiger attacks in their unaccustomed searches as the fences too, that separated the forest area from the residential ones, have been damaged and have drawn the wild animals closer to the residential areas.

Dilip Ghosh (former Health Secretary, government of West Bengal) suggested the modelling of a ‘Care Economy’ as a part of national budget to compensate the dependent (old and children) and the natural disaster affected population as a mitigating measure. In continuation, he expressed that this benefit should be extended to the survivors of human trafficking or any form of violence or women who have experienced or are undergoing teenage pregnancy; two other severities that the pandemic has intensified. On the issue regarding health workers, he opined that more male health-workers must be appointed to deal with non-communicable diseases like blood-pressure, hypertension, diabetes or cancer and share the workload of the female health workers who are continuously risking their lives while dealing with all kinds of illness apart from Covid-19 virus. Another critical concern that he placed, was that of a possible surge in preventable diseases in future, provoked by scarcity of proper vaccination, among various spheres and communities of people to whom these benefits stand inaccessible, owing to the various restrictions imposed during the pandemic.

Screen shot from the webinar

Ebong Alap had also included state government officials to share their approaches in confronting the recent humanitarian crisis. Madhumita Halder, a consultant under the Child Rights and Trafficking Directorate of the state government, provided a few insightful observations to tackle the complications regarding childcare by stating that therapeutic initiatives like art and craft have been introduced to homeless kids and orphans to keep them active and thwart mental health issues. Remedial coaching support for the underprivileged kids in various orphanages or remand homes have also been initiated under government supervision. She expounded the need for awareness campaign in schools and colleges online, for not just safety from Covid-19, but also individual safety from cyber criminals who have also been operating online. Halder added that the child helpline has remained hugely inactive during the pandemic and although the state government implemented various schemes and policies to assist people in their need, a major participation is yet required of both government and private NGOs in making people aware of the government initiatives. She hinted at a cooperative system among the block and district level machineries and the various governmental departments that deal with human development, to battle the multiple extremities that have arisen, by notifying the government about the situation in the first place to avail the essential aid. Some of the solutions outlined by Dilip Ghosh was: that religious organisations must provide fund under these grievous circumstances from the huge amount of donations that they have been receiving, to compensate the losses, benefit the distressed and seeking ways to make women self-dependent than being completely dependent on government schemes. Summing up, Sarmistha Datta Gupta suggested painting pictures or sticking posters on walls of Panchayat offices to interest and acquaint people with the problems and solutions to them.

Nishantika Kundu has just finished a Masters in English from Presidency University, She can be reached at nishantikakundu@gmail.com.

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