COVID-19 crisis: How BRAC is protecting vulnerable communities
On March 11th, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic. More than one year later, we are still in crisis.
By Meghan McLaughlin
Today, as India battles a horrific surge in new COVID-19 infections that began in March 2021, there is concern about the possibility of rising infections in neighboring countries. Our hearts go out to the people of India and all the health workers fighting to save lives amidst this devastating second wave.
In early March, Bangladesh also experienced rising case numbers and quickly introduced a national lockdown from April 5th to May 16th. Since then, daily reported COVID-19 cases in Bangladesh have come down significantly, according to the WHO, but the country remains on high alert given the situation in India and recent Eid holiday.
In response to the new outbreak in Bangladesh, BRAC has launched an initiative to support people in the most vulnerable communities and prevent the spread of COVID-19. BRAC, along with partner NGOs, are running a community-driven COVID-19 response and strengthening health systems at the local level.
Thanks to the generous support of our donors and partners, BRAC has been responding on the front lines of the pandemic across all of our countries of operation to strengthen services, protect livelihoods, and provide safety nets to those most in need.
An evolving crisis
COVID-19 vaccinations are underway in Bangladesh, with more than five million doses administered. BRAC’s 43,000 community health workers are actively involved in informing the public about the vaccines, myth-busting, and directing people to vaccination locations. In addition, 700 of BRAC’s cadre of community health workers are supporting the Government of Bangladesh to administer vaccines. As trusted members of their communities, community health workers play a vital role in easing fears and anxieties about the vaccine and promoting vaccine rollout efforts to prevent infections and protect the most vulnerable people from the virus. Even with vaccination campaigns underway, cases surged again this spring, and lives are at stake.
Many other health needs are being ignored amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and particularly during the recent lockdown measures. BRAC has modified its protocols to ensure the ongoing safe delivery of routine but essential services, such as antenatal care and treatment of pediatric infectious diseases.
In addition to health challenges, the pandemic has also caused economic devastation. Remote work arrangements are not viable options for most people living in poverty in Bangladesh. The widespread lockdowns have jeopardized livelihoods, interrupted access to education, and triggered a large-scale economic and hunger crisis, especially among families already living in extreme poverty.
A look back: A year of mobilizing
In the weeks leading up to the WHO’s declaration of the global pandemic, BRAC began preparing for the emergency, knowing that health systems are severely under-resourced in many of our countries of operation. BRAC anticipated that the virus would be devastating for the most marginalized communities, resulting in food scarcity, rising extreme poverty, disruptions in education, and possible increases in gender-based violence and child marriage.
Collaborating to spread public health messages
At the outset, BRAC knew that locally tailored solutions and strong public communication would be key to combating the pandemic. BRAC staff, community health workers, and volunteers went directly to homes in their communities to spread life-saving messages about the virus and how to stay safe, while observing proper health and safety protocols and observing social distancing to safeguard their health.
In Uganda, it was challenging to reach and inform refugees about COVID-19, especially with lockdowns in place, limited personal protective equipment, and stretched emergency funding resources. BRAC staff found unique ways to disseminate clear and concise health messages to explain the virus, its symptoms, and how to prevent its spread by driving motorbikes with megaphones, sharing informative pamphlets, and sending mass text messages.
Across Africa and Asia, BRAC reached over 38 million households with lifesaving information on COVID-19 prevention.
Empowering Rohingya women to make PPE
Amid global shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), there was a high demand for face masks in the Rohingya refugee settlements in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. In response, BRAC trained Rohingya women in sewing and contracted them to make face masks, enabling them to earn an income and help protect their community. These independent women are part of a supportive community that makes 30,000 masks per week, which, in conjunction with other COVID-19 prevention tactics, has enabled BRAC to administer over three million masks.
Supporting the “new poor”
With lockdowns in place, many people who relied on wages from day labor and were living on the edge of poverty lost their incomes, pushing millions into poverty. The World Bank reports that global poverty is expected to increase significantly for the first time in 20 years, estimating that more than 100 million people were pushed into poverty by COVID-19 in 2020 alone.
BRAC conducted rapid needs assessments in communities across our 11 countries of operation that echoed these findings on the “new poor.” Results showed that an alarming number of people in the communities we serve have experienced a loss of income or food insecurity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Because of our generous supporters, BRAC was able to distribute cash and food supplies to help families meet their immediate needs and prevent life-threatening hunger.
Building back better
BRAC’s nearly 50 years of experience working in solidarity with communities to alleviate poverty and strengthen livelihoods enabled us to act rapidly in response to the pandemic, providing both immediate humanitarian assistance and long-term support to help people recover.
COVID-19 prevention at the community level is still urgently needed. To rise to the challenge, BRAC and its partners are launching a community-driven response in 38 high-risk districts in Bangladesh that will focus on spreading information on disease prevention and proper use of masks, supporting vaccine rollout, and addressing misinformation.
Across all of our countries of operation, BRAC will continue to prevent the spread of disease, provide immediate aid, and foster long-term support for those most affected by the health, economic, and other impacts of the virus.
We are grateful for the overwhelming support of our partners, donors, and supporters that has enabled us to deliver a comprehensive response over the past year. Together, we can help protect the most vulnerable people around the world from the impacts of COVID-19.
Meghan McLaughlin is the Digital Marketing Manager at BRAC USA.