Community-Led Crisis Response – Lessons From the Pandemic




Civil Society

By Julia Jaroschewski and Sonja Peteranderl

To analyse local strategies used to counter the impact of COVID-19, the think-tank BuzzingCities Labs organised the online workshop series “Community-led Crisis Response: COVID-19 Resilience Tools, Strategies and Lessons from the Pandemic”. In five digital debates, international experts, practitioners and participants from diverse backgrounds explored how various at-risk communities have been particularly affected by the pandemic and looked at the crisis response tools and tactics these communities developed to alleviate the social, economic and health impacts on the ground. One debate focused on urban resilience and vulnerable communities.

Urban Resilience: How vulnerable communities are countering the Pandemic

More than one billion people live in slums or informal settlements worldwide, characterised by insecure property rights, low-quality housing, limited basic services and poor sanitation. In these cramped living spaces with widespread poverty and limited access to public services such as water, it is almost impossible to maintain anti-coronavirus measures such as curfews, hygiene or social distancing.

The coronavirus has spread rapidly in many neglected urban communities worldwide, whose residents have only limited access to medical care and to a large extent work in the informal sector. Many residents have lost their jobs or at least part of their income. Problems such as excessive police violence within these communities have continued during the pandemic.

In India alone, more than 65 million people live in slums, many of whom migrated from rural areas to the cities to earn their livelihoods there and work in the informal sector or in factories, with their income being severely impacted by lockdowns. Thousands walked back to rural areas during the pandemic – which also had a snowball effect on the spread of the virus.

# Community organisations have had to restructure their activities, and new networks have emerged that deliver a fast and local emergency response. 

Many governments around the world have launched social assistance programmes during the pandemic, but often this aid is not enough and only temporary – hurdles such as language barriers, lack of knowledge about aid services, illiteracy or sometimes a lack of IDs made it even more difficult for vulnerable residents from informal settlements to participate in these programmes.

Community initiatives in informal settlements all over the world have formed COVID task forces, with volunteers setting up crowdfunding campaigns and going house to house to distribute disinfectants or food packages to families in need. “The health crisis reflects the inequalities in Brazil – we already had all these problems before the pandemic, but it’s getting worse now,” Michele Silva, Co-Founder and Executive Coordinator of the Jornal Fala Roça of the favela of Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro says. “The government doesn’t pay a lot of attention, so we had to find ways to protect ourselves against the virus.”

Jornal Fala Roça is now part of 35 favela organisations that are providing services to residents in need: they have already, for example, collected and delivered 400 tonnes of food. The network consisting of journalists, activists and community initiatives of all sorts also tries to call out grievances and thereby force the government to act.

For particularly vulnerable groups such as drug addicts in the Philippines, who are criminalised by the government, the lockdown posed a dangerous health risk. The peer-to-peer organisation IDUCARE normally provides support to drug users at their drop-in centres, offering clean needles and medical consultations as well as organised outreach activities in informal settlements. But the pandemic has made providing many of these services and interventions impossible. “People with HIV had difficulties getting into the clinic for regular refills of anti-viral drugs,” says Johann Nadela, Founder and Executive Director of IDUCARE. “Also, if drug users don’t have access to syringes, they share them again and are at risk of contracting diseases.”

The organisation had to reorganise their support system from scratch: Outreach managers brought the medicine to people’s homes, IDUCARE also used the delivery app Lalamove to deliver medicine and other goods. A text message referral system helped to direct clients to partner organisations or providers in their proximity, while consultations with doctors were also made available online.

# Gathering transparency on COVID-19 infections in informal settlements is a challenge – community-based data projects and crowdsourcing can help to close this gap.

Many informal settlements do not have sufficient access to health care, and in some cases the residents are not officially registered – and, as a result, many COVID infections remain invisible. Local community organisations in Brazilian favelas like the media platform Voz das Comunidades in Rio de Janeiro have introduced COVID-19 news bulletins and other regularly updated services for citizens like “COVID-19 nas Favelas”, a data visualisation platform which breaks down corona deaths and infections by favela.

More than 20 favela organisations and initiatives across different parts of Rio de Janeiro’s Metropolitan Region also teamed up in July 2020 to jointly combat the underreporting of cases and close the data gap: Catalytic Communities’ “Painel Unificador COVID-19 Nas Favelas do Rio de Janeiro” (COVID-19 in Favelas Unified Dashboard) maintains official coronavirus statistics as well as self-declared cases of inhabitants, with weekly updates and covering more than 185 favelas.

The self-declared cases are recorded through a diagnostic platform where citizens evaluate their symptoms and are then divided into three groups according to their severity – all medium and high-risk cases appear on the dashboard.

# Local fact-checking campaigns are required to counter disinformation and spread healthcare education.

Many inhabitants of informal settlements do not have the opportunity to isolate themselves socially. Some even lack access to water for washing their hands, or cannot afford sanitiser. Moreover, a lack of knowledge about preventive measures also favours the spread of the virus. Communities that have little education and few media skills are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 disinformation, which can circulate worldwide in connection with the pandemic and poses a serious health risk.

In Brazil, even President Jair Bolsonaro regularly plays down the risks of coronavirus infections and spreads false information: “There is a lot of disinformation going around at the moment,” warns Michele Silva of the Jornal Fala Roça in the favela of Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro. “Many people in the favelas continue their normal activities; they don’t even follow the main rules.”

Local community sites like Jornal Fala Roça und Voz das Comunidades in Rio de Janeiro play an important role in educating residents about the pandemic and informing them about hygiene measures. Not all citizens have access to information from the media or the internet. Loudspeakers broadcasting from vehicles, flyers distributed in local churches and businesses, as well as street art are being used to reach out to citizens during the pandemic.

However, structural problems cannot be solved with information alone: “If people use masks, but the same toilet in a slum is used by 100 people – then they go to the toilet and come back with COVID-19,” criticises the Indian Urban Regional Planner Megha Phansalkar.

# The lessons learned from the pandemic could serve to prevent future crises – if local stakeholders are involved to develop integrated programmes. 

The problems of informal settlements must be addressed beyond the pandemic: “How do we reduce the gap? How do we prevent a future crisis? These should be the key questions now,” Phansalkar says. Challenges such as access to sanitation, access to water, hygiene and health services and waste management must be solved. Local data related to gender, economic income and other aspects is needed before the response levels can be determined.

Decision-makers from the communities should be involved in every process of decision-making when planning new strategies and programmes – because, without community involvement, even well-designed approaches cannot work. Phansalkar demands that the economic stimulus must also reach vulnerable communities. In India, for example, skill mapping is already taking place, in which the skills of the unemployed are evaluated and matched with the needs of companies and organisations. Female founders in rural areas are also demonstrating how local networks can support each other in entrepreneurship.

For further information, you can download the full report of the online workshop series here.


About the authors:

Julia Jaroschewski is a journalist with expertise in the fields of foreign politics, organized crime, the war on drugs and security policy and she is also the founder of BuzzingCities Labs, a think tank focusing on digital technology and security in informal settlements.

Sonja Peteranderl is an editor mainly covering topics related to global politics, tech trends, security, justice and organized crime/cyber-crime and she is also the co-founder of BuzzingCities Labs.

Published on October 14, 2021.

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