Youth-led response to COVID-19

Nahid Riyasad | Published: 00:00, Apr 05,2020


A volunteer of Bidyanondo Foundation, that is at the forefront of the citizens’ volunteer work during the COVID-19 crisis, exhausted, fallen asleep at her work station. — Bidyanondo/Facebook

Since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 8, a total of 70 people are infected of which eight died as of Saturday. A ‘public holiday’ was declared which is now stretched until April 11 from March 26. In this time of health crisis and economic slowdown, when the government effort appears inadequate, youths from all walks of life are rising to the occasion, writes Nahid Riyasad

EVEN during the two world wars in the last century, as many countries were not directly affected as they are now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hundreds of countries have locked down in order to contain the spread of the disease that has already claimed over 50,000 lives across the world in the last three months. Lockdown means suspension of all the economic activities except health care and groceries.

According to an Asian Development Bank study, 89 per cent jobs of Bangladesh are in informal sector. Day labourers, domestic workers and street-vendors are some of the professions that are going to suffer most in case of a lockdown. Furthermore, panic buying has hiked prices of daily necessities, which were already high for economically marginalised people. Many governments in the world have announced packages for their citizens to tackle the crisis.

India has announced a USD 22 billion package for the poor people, one per cent of their GDP, which has already sparked criticism because it is meager compared to many countries. However, it means that 80 crore people will be able to get rice at Rs 3 per kilograms and wheat at Rs 2 per kilograms.

Bangladesh government, meanwhile, announced a Tk 5000 crore package for export oriented industries, to take loans for 2 per cent interest to pay employee salaries. The 85-90 per cent of them is apparel industries and they can take up to six months before starting to repay the loans. Some netizens have condemned the decision of giving bailout money to an already established industry because after decades of incentives it cannot sustain by itself during a crisis period.

While modern governments are busy saving the ruling elite class and their interests, youth of Bangladesh have taken the responsibility on their shoulders to respond to the crisis. During the initial phase, when the first case of COVID-19 was officially confirmed in Bangladesh on March 8, different youth organisations and left-leaning political party student units started making and distributing hand-sanitisers, hand-washes, masks, soaps as well as creating awareness among economically marginalised people. In the later phase, the need shifted to daily necessities as economic activities were gradually suspending. Moreover, there are a number of animal rights organisations who have come forward in this crisis situation to feed the stray animals. Students of public health programmes have started hot-lines to answer people’s question on COVID-19.

Among others, Bidyanondo Foundation is a prominent name in the scene of citizen volunteers. Bidyanondo literally translates into education for fun, is a voluntary organisation focused to support education for the underprivileged children. This is an organisation with forty officials and a few hundred mostly youth volunteers, however, they have undertaken mammoth tasks and carrying on with efficiency and success. A cursory look on few of their initiatives, even though, they are getting donations from personal and corporate channels, is sufficient to understand their importance in addressing the COVID-19 crisis.

In the last few days, Bidyanondo has paid over Tk 2 crore for daily necessities like rice, lentil, oil and salt. The amount was used to buy rice, lentil, salt, biscuits and oil. These amounts have been collected through public funding. New Age Youth contacted Faruque Ahmed, a volunteer working for the organisation to know about their plans and how they are tackling the logistics during the shutdown. He informs about their four step initiatives ­ — storing dry food, distributing cooked food, disinfecting streets and distributing personal protective equipment  — and how they are handling the distribution process. ‘Currently, we are storing dry and packaged foods in Dhaka and other divisions. From meetings with experts, we have learned that food supplies might deplete in the coming days so we are researching to finalise a right time to start our distribution,’ he said.

For the logistics, Bidyanondo has contacted transport businesses to reach to different parts of the country and many have positively responded to take part in the initiative. ‘These all depends on the situation. We have permissions from the ministry to carry on our work but if the situation deteriorates, we might have to hand over our stock and logistics to the government agencies. Till now, they are very co-operative,’ Faruque adds.

During a conversation with Samrat and Himu, who are working for ‘Ek Takar Ahar (Meal for Tk 1)’ a sister concern of Bidyanondo, New Age Youth learns about their cooked meal distribution initiative. ‘With the help of two business organisations, we are cooking food in two points of Dhaka, Mohammadpur and Wari, and distribute the food among 5000-7000 people every day where two of our volunteer teams are working. Dhaka Metropolitan Police is supporting us with the logistics,’ they say.

Bidyanondo is also responding to the calls of people who are quarantined and are in serious need of daily supplies. Their volunteers are reaching with food to them during the crisis situation.

A broken supply chain means the producers have surplus products and the consumers cannot access them. Bidyanondo has been addressing this situation by dumping truckload of vegetables in different areas of Dhaka, from where anyone can take what they need. They are sourcing the products from the northern part of the country where the farmers cannot bring their products due to the broken supply chain.

We have seen in social media how governments in different worst hit countries are spraying disinfectants on streets. In Bangladesh, Bidyanondo has taken the responsibility of disinfecting the streets in Dhaka and Chittagong. A top chemical company in Bangladesh is supplying them the equipment and the solutions. Teams of volunteer dressed in necessary personal protective equipment are spraying disinfectants in streets and establishments like Dhaka Medical College and Chittagong Medical College hospitals. They have a target to spray 300,000 liters of disinfectants.

A citizen volunteer is feeding stray dogs during the COVID-19 outbreak. —Obhoyaronno/Facebook


The fourth step of Bidyanondo is distributing PPE among health care staffs. Faruque informs that directorate general of health services has certified their PPE and clears them for distribution. Till Saturday, they have distributed around 5000 PPE in the upazila level.

Meanwhile, another group of eight-youths has designed a disinfecting booth to be installed in medical facilities and eventually in public places. Tauhidul Rifat, the architect and leader of ‘Mukti 20’, talks to New Age Youth about their invention.

‘Currently, we have successfully tested it on different PPE and working on solutions to be sprayed directly on bare skin and clothing. We are hopeful this will help people because it will disinfect anybody within 10-15 seconds.’

Bangladesh Students Union is one of the first youth responders to COVID-19 crisis. From March 17, a team is staying at the Teacher-Student Centre of the University of Dhaka and making hand sanitisers to distribute among nearby street vendors and economically maginalised people. While talking to their central committee president, Mehedi Hasan Nobel, New Age Youth learns that they are facing difficulty amidst the shutdown to source food to distribute among those who need it.

‘We have not received any direction form the government about how should we conduct the volunteer work because during a viral outbreak like this, the volunteers are also at serious risk of getting infected,’ he says adding ‘We have to keep this in mind that an outbreak of such magnitude cannot be addressed properly with volunteers and the state has the ultimate responsibility but we are yet to see such initiative from the government.’

Bangladesh Students’ Federation is also undertaking different activities to address the COVID-19 crisis. Among many, they have been campaigning to make economically marginalised people aware about the crisis and instruct them how to keep themselves save from the virus, distributing masks, hand sanitisers and food. Some members of Narayanganj unit of the organisation have drawn circles in drug stores and groceries to ensure that people keep social distance in public.

In a conversation with New Age Youth, central committee president of Students’ Federation Golam Mustafa points out that citizen volunteers are not the solution to such crisis. ‘The government has failed to take necessary measures before the crisis and now we are in the crisis and we see very little efforts from the government to mobilise funds to provide people with food and necessities. This is the responsibility of the state and the government and they are clearly not doing enough.’

Hochemin Islam, a gender and sexual rights activists and Tashnuva Anan, a cultural activist from Dhaka, are distributing groceries in transgender and hijra communities. They have aided more than 100 people from these communities with groceries in Khulna, Bogura and Rajbari district.

Youth are not only distributing necessary goods to the needy, but also looking after their communities too. Mongsai Marma, a resident of Khagrachari’s Shuduong Member Para informed New Age Youth that the youth of their vicinity has taken the responsibility to lock down their area to restrict the virus from spreading. ‘The youth are guarding the gates in three shifts to ensure no outsiders enter our area during the COVID-19 crisis,’ he says.

Meanwhile, a group of public health professionals and doctors from North South University has opened an online helpline named ‘NONSTOP247’. Initially, they used their own cellphone numbers as hotlines, informed Dr Nafisa Rahma. Within a week, they received tremendous response and started working with the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research. Dr Mahbubur Rahman Rajib, a research assistant at the university’s public health department told New Age Youth that currently more than 80 volunteers are working with them. They have also collaborated with all the medical colleges and recruited volunteers from these colleges.

Stray animals are facing serious food crisis because with ‘general holiday’, Bangladesh’s version of lockdown, enforced there are not many people on the streets to feed them. Amidst the crisis, animal rights organisations have come forward to feed canines and felines. Care for Paws is an animal shelter and rights organisation and they are investing their efforts to feed stray animals during the crisis.

CFP has fed more than 2200 dogs and cats in different places of Dhaka through volunteers and the chairman of Care for Paws Sourav Shamim is coordinating the process. Zahid Hussain, founder and secretary general of CFP informs New Age Youth that they have also distributed daily necessities among marginalised people mostly waste-management workers in Dhaka.

Meanwhile, Obhoyaronno-Bangladesh Animal Welfare Organisation is also distributing food among stray animals in Dhaka. In their case, the activities are individually done by their members and they will soon have a coordinated distribution process in place.

Amidst the COVID-19 crisis, health system of many rich countries is at tatters which revitalised the question — where should a state invest its money? For the financial year 2019-2020, Bangladesh allocated 5.63 per cent of their total budget for health sector whereas Cuba, who is offering medical support to the worst corona hit countries, spends 10.57 per cent of its GDP in the health sector.

The central committee presidents of two frontline students’ organisation presidents have echoed each other and assert that citizens’ initiatives cannot singlehandedly face the scale of the current crisis, rather the government should own up to its responsibility and do the needful urgently. Citizens’ efforts should be supplementary to what the government is doing.

Golam Mustafa indicates to the youth initiatives and said, ‘these are not enough but these youth efforts are eye opener for the state and the government that these should be their duty because the citizens pay taxes and the government is constitutionally obligated to take the responsibility.’

On that note, volunteers, too, are vulnerable to the COVID-19 infection and mostly untrained to response in such situations. Still, in a time when government effort appears unbelievably inadequate, youths from all walks of life are rising to the occasion.

Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team

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