Playing to Our Strengths: Civil Society’s COVID-19 response

by Lopamudra Sanyal & Ravi Sreedharan, Indian School of Development Management (ISDM) and Ingrid Srinath, Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP) at Ashoka University

The world was unprepared for COVID-19, a crisis of unprecedented proportions and implications. A few months into this coronavirus pandemic, nations, governments, and people continue to struggle to find appropriate measures and means to respond effectively.

India is no exception, although experts had accurately predicted the infection’s impact weeks ago, including the economic effects of lockdowns. The resulting damage to our underprivileged and underrepresented communities will take months to unfold and assess.

Apart from the brave and brilliant efforts of frontline medical responders, sanitation workers and others engaged in providing essential services and products, there is another critical sector whose work and sustained efforts have helped millions across the country. Social purpose organisations in India have worked to respond quickly, not only to the medical impacts of the crisis, but to the social challenges and concerns that came with it.

All components of the social sector — donors, intermediaries, ecosystem enablers, community-serving NGOs, think tanks, technical support groups — have risen magnanimously to address the multitude of issues unleashed by COVID-19 and the necessary quarantines. They have stepped into multiple roles, from first responders through relief and basic service delivery activities, to norm-creators for affected communities, to watchdogs standing by their commitment towards rights of citizens for access to food, shelter, healthcare, and livelihoods.

Civil society’s primary achievement during this period has been in its ability to highlight the plight of migrant labourers, the loss of work and wages, the challenges created for marginalised communities, the immediate need to address the rise in cases of violence against women, even as the government and other agencies focus on tackling the virus. Had it not been for the response of social impact organisations, many of the issues that the pandemic and lockdown has brought forth would have remained lost in the silence of our society’s vulnerabilities and fault lines.

First responders and norm-creators

The sector’s ability to deliver relief and emergency services comes as a surprise to only a few. According to data submitted by the government to the Supreme Court, more than 30 lakh people across 13 states received meals and water during the first 21 days of the lockdown. NGOs were also first responders to the immediate needs of migrants stuck in alien cities or trying to get home. Government data analysed by India Today shows that 39.14 percent of the 10.37 lakh people stranded in the early days of the lockdown found shelter in facilities run by NGOs.

Much of the work being done by social impact organisations during this pandemic has focused on regions, communities, and people that are most likely to be overlooked. Kranti, a Mumbai-based organisation, has been distributing relief kits and provisions to commercial sex workers in Kamathipura; Grey Shades, a Chandigarh-based organisation, has focused on aiding the elderly who are on their own. Larger organisations like Goonj, Akshay Patra, and World Vision India worked on providing relief and rehabilitation materials to even larger populations.

Apart from diving deep into providing direct services and relief efforts in these challenging times, India’s social sector has been going wide by establishing and strengthening networks to support communities, enabling community institutions to ensure people’s well-being, and preventing disadvantaged communities from experiencing further vulnerability and harm.

This work has included strengthening and scaffolding incomes for millions of daily wage earners by way of Direct Beneficiary Transfers (DBT) and through strong institutional forums that strengthen their voices and safeguard their access to rehabilitation schemes. Samhita has fostered the India Workers’ Alliance that has been providing DBTs to those whose livelihoods are at risk or have been suspended; apart from providing them access to government schemes and insurances to ensure support, the organisation has raised more than 70 crores towards this end.

Watchdogs and allies for government measures

At the same time, social impact organisations have innovated and customised their programmes to swiftly to not only expand their reach and impact, but also provide hope and succour to those who have lost the most. Not enough can be said about the admirable manner in which organisations have been able to offer counselling, nor the manner in which NGOs like Kudumbshree in Kerela are working together with the government to bridge gaps, nor about organisations engaging migrant labourers stranded in villages on their way home in rebuilding community assets likes schools and public spaces.

The sector has also responded to the call for additional volunteers and resources, made by Amitabh Kant, NITI Aayog CEO. Hundreds of organisations are already working through their field-level representatives and networks to provide assistance to existing government efforts.

Rebuilding tomorrow

As social sector representatives, we stand resolute on our mission to improve lives and empower people and the planet. Collectively, we envision our critical role in shaping policies for the future, to guard against donor fatigue that can potentially undo previous efforts, and to assist and amplify government efforts for society’s most marginalised people and overlooked communities.

The pandemic has amplified the need to recognise civil society as a vital part of the social, economic, ecological and political fabric of this country — and a substantial stakeholder with a tangible contribution towards building a new future for India. The road ahead to recovery from COVID-19 and the economic slowdown requires an ecosystem where civil society is an equal and vigilant participant at the table.

This piece was originally published by CNBC TV18.