Social Sector in times of COVID-19

Social Sector in times of COVID-19

“When I boarded an auto today at 11 am and told him my destination – which was just  2km away; the auto driver, in his late 40s, was almost teary-eyed. On asking if everything is ok, he mentioned that I am the first customer since morning and that his wife is waiting at home to buy the ration for the day. I was overwhelmed too. I consoled him, handed over an additional Rs. 500 note and wished him a better day” – The story was narrated by a colleague of mine when I had called her up, in our ‘work from home’ regime that my organization has declared. 

A few days back, when my daughter’s school announced a holiday (canceling the exams) and an extended summer vacation (3 months homestay), I expected the parent’s WhatsApp group to welcome this with  a big cheer. Instead, I noticed most parents were struggling to strike the balance between work and managing kids at home with both partners working. I realized that this issue would be faced by our home-helps as well. When I checked with my help – she was dejected. “My husband is a daily wage laborer at the fruit market and when schools were open, we needn’t worry about our son’s lunch. He was getting a mid-day meal at school and studying. Now, there is no lunch, leaving him with a neighbor; the husband is also struggling to find the daily work. Don’t know how will we manage.” I have since then given her a paid leave. 

Above two conversations in the last two days, made me realize that the entire gig economy as well as the social development sector, would be undergoing a massive crisis at this stage of ‘work from home’ impacted by ‘COVID-19 spread’. On the one hand, there is the beneficiary who, more often than not, needs daily care and support and on the other the risk to the health of both the social worker as well as to the beneficiary group if they come in contact with anyone coming from outside the community.

Work from home is easier said, than done for the social sector. 

The impact of COVID – 19 on the social development sector

The work of an NGO varies depending on the sector being served- ranging from the core activity of community mobilization to offering services like education, health services, nutrition, water or financial products; overseeing group production activities, running orphanages or old age homes or care centers for disabled. All these are the work requiring a high level of  personal contact or engagement. While working at any stage of a project, data collection for need assessment, base lining, mid-term evaluation, outcome assessment or impact assessment – all require meeting the beneficiaries or other stakeholders. Given the COVID scare – communities/villagers are refusing to let any outsider come in to undertake any such activities for the fear of getting infected with Coronavirus. On top of that, the government is issuing directives to work from home, as a precautionary measure. NGO leaders/Social sector leaders seem to be perplexed with the situation. While the IT Company and other corporate entities have shifted to remote working from home, laced with all kinds of collaboration tools/software; NGOs are finding it challenging to manage all their tasks remotely.
To gain insights on how the sector is coping up, we reached out to few  industry/sector professionals to understand the on-ground situation.     
Firstly, there are several operational challenges that are being faced. Several initiatives of NGOs include supplying food and nutrition to children. We spoke to an NGO based in Pune that  supplies medication and nutrition to children at risk .With social distancing, this activity is becoming a challenge. All volunteer visits have been stopped completely. While the organization  is hopeful of managing it for a few more days, they are concerned that this situation persists, their supplies cannot sustain beyond 25-30 days. The organization representatives are tel-communicating to the local govt. representatives and hospitals to supply the medicine for these children. Another NGO who works very closely with rural villages in Maharashtra reported  that while its local staff is being allowed, villagers have formed a vigilance team and are not allowing anyone from outside to come into the village. Many local government offices are also closed, making it difficult for the work dependent on them to go forward. The NGOs supporting micro-entrepreneurs are reporting how their work is getting impacted. With contract workers losing jobs and being forced to go back to their native villages, the demand for these micro enterprises is taking a beating.  

Another unexpected fear developing is among the HIV infected patients, since a directive that HIV medicines may be used to handle the COVID-19 patients. One senior leader from the industry shared, that when she met some HIV positive women’s group in the community recently, there were concerns about Anti retro viral  ARV medicines being used in treating Coronavirus disease and if there is going to a supply demand disequilibrium of this medicine and how it will impact the HIV positive community. It’s important for community leaders to allay such fears, in tandem with government health officials. 

In Pakistan, social sectors particularly health and education both are pressing issues being faced by over all community in this critical time. With respect to education, overall education system has been lock down. Since, many of the students are from rural community therefore no access to online learning. No alternative has been yet devised for students. Only few of the universities are providing online learning facilities. However, this situation may prevail since recently government has declared students’ hostels as Quarantine facility for the time being. So we are foreseeing a prolong lock down of education system.
Beyond that, smaller NGOs across the globe are feeling the pinch of funding as the small individual donations which were coming via personal meetings, has been put on halt.

What should the NGOs do? 

This is not the time to Panic.
Like any other sector, the nimblest of them will survive the hardships, by innovating. NGOs could also look at the situation of social distancing as an opportunity to do, what they always wanted to, but never had time to do. Since on- field activities have come to a halt, organizations can take stock and strategize more sharply on areas such as, Strategy planning for the organization. Ask the following questions, important for the organization, but mostly put on the back burner. 

  • How tech-enabled are you? Can we take up some of those projects now?
  • When was the last time, there was a ‘skill-building training’ for your staff. Can you get them enrolled in online webinars for learning?
  • What are the measures to make the communities that you work in, be more self-reliant? Have you created enough in-community assets and doers, to reduce dependency on you?
  • What are the activities, which can be done without visiting the community / over the phone? 

 A large pool of qualified individuals trapped for a long period being confined at home, with the internet – is also a potent tool for all online volunteering companies. This means, that many more volunteers would be available for the sector, albeit online. NGOs that are ready to handle this as an opportunity, would be able to leverage this surge to get some of their basic projects/organization building projects handled, free of cost eg. Creating an HR manual; creating a volunteering platform/policy/guidelines; improving their website, etc.
The next big set of work which is due to come up for NGOs is counseling – people of the current generation haven’t seen such social lockdown and extended periods of the same would potentially mean a mental breakdown at different  stages. NGOs in the counseling or mental health space, must gear up for the after-effects and increase in demand. 
One important thing that all NGOs must do, in partnership with their donor, is to set up an emergency response mechanism at a community level – be it a village or a shelter home. People on the ground should be made aware of where and who to reach to, in case they see any symptom in any member of the community. 

What should the Corporate / CSR departments do? 

The most important thing that donors can do at this stage is to reassure their implementation partners that they are standing with them in this time of difficulty. Large global organizations like Ford Foundation have taken a lead in this by announcing a pledge to provide their nonprofit partners flexible funding support during this crisis. This includes converting project-based grants to unrestricted support, accelerating payments, make new grants for emergency response, postponing reporting requirements, etc. 
All in all, it is a difficult time for the globe. We need to be extremely sensitive and understand that a frontline NGO worker is no less a hero; when it comes to putting their lives at risk while serving on their duties. We salute these unsung heroes.  
“And when the danger passed, and people joined together again, they grieved their losses, and made new choices, and dreamed new images, and created new ways to live and heal the earth fully as they had been healed”  
– Kitty Omeara, author of ‘people stayed home’ 

If you just want to talk or share the challenges that you are facing and how are you coping with it, we are all ears. Maybe a small innovative thought that you share here might help some other NGO in some other part of the world.  

About the article – Please feel free to reach out to us, in case you need more understanding about some section / some point mentioned. Would be happy to discuss and share further details.    
We’d like to thank Arti Madhusudan (iVolunteer), Christy Abraham (Ex CEO, APD and Currently Deputy Director, DNA), Prof Niraj Kumar, Dean, DMI – Patna; Dr. Sonia Sethi (Islamia College, Peshawar), Dr.Usha Pillai, Founder & CEO, IDEA Foundation; Lewwit Somraj, CEO, LifeLabs; Ms. Ashwini Kardile, Chairperson, RMUBS, Sunanda Tilloo, VP, Swadhar; and others for their inputs. 

By : Manju Menon (CEO, NuSocia)

Date Updated : 20th march 2020

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