What does Nurjahan need?

May 20, 2020

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Can we think of a human-centric approach to tackle the COVID-19 crisis?

Nurjahan* is my household care worker. She is a can-do person. Not only does she cook and clean, but she does groceries when needed, waters my plants, feeds my cat and gives me immense mental support. 

She has been on leave after the lockdown began in Bangladesh. She called me almost every day to know how I am doing, and shared her situation as well.

Her daughters live in the village with her mother, and she and her husband live in a bedroom in a slum. She works in three homes and her husband is a rickshaw puller. Her family is one example of whom the lockdown has hit the hardest. 

My conversation with her about the COVID-19 crisis brought into light that their voice has not been considered in the midst of the lockdown. Centralised approaches are being taken for the poor and vulnerable. Could a human-centered approach help individuals more? 

Read more: COVID-19: Update from Asif Saleh (16 May 2020)

The space for social distancing

When I asked if they are practicing social distancing – a concept she had difficulty understanding – she said, “It is not possible to maintain social distancing, simply because there is no space.

“Whether we are infected or not, it is up to God. We have thankuni pata (Indian pennywort leaves), and it will not touch us”.

This is the basic understanding of many people in low-income households in the country. I told her how God is not going to ‘help’ people if they are not being cautious and that many people are dying. She knows, but has an immense faith that nothing will happen to her. Such optimism has been a problem during this crisis. 

Dhaka slums are established in such a manner whereby the idea of social distancing is not just alien to residents, it is impossible for social and economic reasons, too. People come back to their rooms only to sleep. 

Nonetheless, Nurjahan told me that the uses of showers and kitchens now have a schedule, to avoid crowding and risk of infection. Local volunteers from an NGO asked them to prepare a schedule for these common areas. 

Communicating important messages

Many people went to their villages since the lockdown began, therefore the slums are not too crowded. Nurjahan’s sister-in-law also left, but was called back when her factory was about to supposedly open. There was no transportation. She walked for hours, eventually giving up because the road was too long. 

Neither Nurjahan nor her sister-in-law reads the newspaper or watches television. Text or voice messages may be useful to send information or directives. Everyone has the same rights; information on how the lockdown is being eased and why workers are requested to join the factories must be communicated to everyone, and done so effectively. 

The larger threat: COVID-19 or starving?

Nurjahan received food support from Sajeda Foundation to last her almost a month. Her brother, a person living with a disability, received cash support of BDT 1500 (approximately 17 USD) from BRAC in his village. 

More than 80% of Bangladesh’s population works in the informal sector. For them, living off on their limited savings is not sustainable. Nurjahan mentioned that her husband has almost no earnings as a self-employed rickshaw puller, and her brother’s small car workshop in the village has shut down. 

Many across the country are in need, and the fear of catching a cold and dying does not pose a larger threat than staying hungry with their family, Nurjahan said. 

Read more: Manoshi: Ensuring maternal care in a pandemic

Nurjahan’s solutions 

Relief distribution has not been equal. Strong people can be at the front and collect, while physically weak people are left behind. “I can stand in the line all day, but my brother, a person with a disability, cannot. They could be reached in their homes with daily essentials.”

Nurjahan went on, “We are not allowed to go out to buy essentials. The police criminalise us. What if someone has emergency needs? There should be a way to let that happen. They should treat us with dignity – not by scolding or hitting.

“My husband and I fight more, because we are home all day together. He is frustrated, he shouts more. We hear women scream from other houses more often. Something along the lines of a community watch group can work here, going door to door and discussing issues of domestic violence.

“If I get sick, I will need medical care. It will be good to know more about how I can get treatment, closer to where I live. There is a new medical centre nearby where people can go if they have symptoms of this disease, but people are not hiding these symptoms, out of fear. There needs to be more information available on what to do, if someone gets sick.

“My brother was doing well with his business. He had paid his employees as much as he could before they left, and he continues to pay rent and the utility of the shop. Could he get cash support for paying his employees and rent? Once this crisis is over, he will need to start-over, and will need a long term financial plan to stay in business.

“My daughter should be able to start her classes. Can all schools start online classes through television or mobile phones? Otherwise, how can students complete the syllabus?”

Read more: Let’s not forget people with disabilities during this pandemic

Skills training in lockdown 

BRAC’s skills development programme provides demand-based skills training, and links youth and adults to decent employment opportunities through apprenticeship and institution-based training in formal and informal sectors.

All training had been postponed since the lockdown was announced. Learners were encouraged to stay home, maintaining health and hygiene precautions. Our field staff were mobilised to assess difficulties faced by learners and micro and small business owners. 

Due to a robust data system, we were able to carry out rapid surveys to understand needs of the community and identify the most vulnerable beneficiaries of the programme, i.e, people with disabilities, transgender community, domestic workers. We shared a list of 8,000 of our most vulnerable clients with BRAC’s central emergency unit, so they can be supported with emergency cash funds. 

We collaborated with BRAC University and the National Scouts in preparing and distributing 94,153 hand sanitisers nationwide. Our sector specialists, with the support from BRAC’s gender, justice and diversity programme, conducted surveys to understand vulnerabilities of female learners. In case they face violence at home, the safeguarding phone numbers were shared with them.

All staff have been in touch with learners to check up on their mental state. We learned that there is a dire need for psychological counselling, especially for young people, given that their future is so uncertain. 

We are currently weighing our options to start online training classes, keeping in mind that most learners come from disadvantaged backgrounds and may not have adequate technological facilities at home. We are running a small scale survey on social media to understand the demand for online classes. 

The skills training programme has also partnered with Microsoft to launch an online training platform last year. This platform along with other training in IT-related occupations may be started, given that theoretical classes can be conducted online. 

In order to mainstream online training, online accessibility of all learners must be assessed. With the gradual lifting of the lockdown in Bangladesh, BRAC’s skills development programme is focusing on developing strategies to start training classes, while maintaining social distancing and safety precautions.


Tasmia Rahman is the head of Strategy and Business Development, Skills Development Programme, BRAC.

This article previously appeared in The Daily Star.

*Name has been changed to preserve identity.

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