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Role of community engagement in combating COVID-19

Dr. Manju PanwarDr. Manju Panwar | Updated: 17-08-2020 08:29 IST | Created: 17-08-2020 08:29 IST
Role of community engagement in combating COVID-19
Representative Picture. Image Credit: Flickr

Nowadays, a lot of attention is being paid on community transmission in the context of COVID-19 and its role in spreading the coronavirus has become a debatable issue. So far, the Indian government has maintained that there is no community transmission. Though there are experts who are of the opinion that community transmission of coronavirus is already taking place and is not getting detected because India is not testing enough. There has even been a joint statement by Indian Public Health Association, Indian Association of Preventive and Social Medicine and Indian Association of Epidemiologists that "it is unrealistic to expect that COVID-19 pandemic can be eliminated at this stage given that community transmission is already well-established across large sections or sub-populations in the country." Though it is controversial whether COVID-19 is spreading through community transmission or not but in this process, the community has acquired a center stage of discussions and its importance is being acknowledged worldwide.

Concept of Community

As far as the concept of community is concerned, it is not fully understood because of it's vast scope that covers many social sciences concepts and can even differ from person to person. According to Clark (2007), the only thing that sociologists have agreed on was that the community had something to do with people. Mahatma Gandhi has not defined the term community but he vividly mentioned that village is the basic community with its geographical boundaries having mutual cooperation and common sharing. The concept of community has acquired a prominent place in the social work practice. In social work literature, as described by Siddiqui (1997), the term community is used to represent a target population, within a certain geographical locale. To conclude, the community is a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common. A community is also a social group of any size whose members live in a particular place, share a government, and may have a common culture and tradition.

Less importance on community participation

Coming back to the role of community in combating COVID-19, it has been observed that the lack of community participation is one of the main reasons that massive interventions by the government are not bearing much fruit. This has also been noticed by Ritu Priya, a professor of public health at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) who says that "community engagement could be the missing link in enabling the adoption of and adherence to the government's public health guidelines." In order to control the outbreak, the government has been trying its best to focus on behavior modification measures like maintaining physical distancing, hand washing, cough manners, and so on but these measures will only yield results if the community is engaged in its implementation. This has also been acknowledged by many experts including Nachiket Mor, former country director for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in an interview with IndiaSpend in which he said that need of the hour is the active community engagement for fighting COVID-19. WHO has also said that "community engagement is the one factor that underlies the success of all other control measures."

Realization of community across world

Not only in India, the participation of the community in handling the COVID-19 crisis has also been acknowledged in other countries as well. Educating people about the severity of the virus, communities participated in Bangladesh built an emergency assistance component into its municipal water supply and sanitation project when the COVID-19 outbreak began with the help of the community. Recognizing the need for water to maintain hygiene, the project set up washing stations with liquid soap at strategic locations in 30 municipalities and deployed women from self-help groups to manage them.

Trust and indigenous knowledge needed

In order to get support from the community, it is important to build trust and acknowledge their indigenous knowledge. Under the community social work practice, trust-building holds an important place by which people from the community are invited to participate in decision-making. A participatory approach is needed to apply the methods of intervention in the community.

Secondly, we need to stop throwing our weight behind the assumption that illiterate people from a community are incapable. It is one of the main reasons because of which the majority of the programs and schemes doomed to fail as they give little or no importance to community participation. There are many examples where in order to work with the community, their trust was earned first. For example, Kerela government in collaboration with nursing associations, government doctors' associations, the private sector, panchayat leaders, frontline workers, local self-help groups, traders' associations, and others came forward to provide a platform to the community for voicing their concerns in reducing the ramifications of the pandemic. Community kitchens of Kerala is another example that is aimed at addressing the problem of food security during the lockdown. In Maharashtra too, farmers came forward and formed their cooperative with the help of block officials for supplying their products to urban households.

Intervention of BPS Women's University

In the above context, BPS Women's University Khanpur Kalan - first women university in North India, also took the initiative of working in the five adopted villages of the University in order to fight with Covid-19. These five adopted villages are also covered in the Unnat Bharat Abhiyan, a flagship program of the Ministry of Human Resource Development, whose objective is to transform Indian villages with people's participation, use of their indigenous knowledge, and technology. As the university has been working in these five villages for a long time, so there was a trust between university and villages and Gram Panchayats fully supported the university in taking various steps such as stitching of masks, identification of domestic violence cases, distribution of food to vulnerable households and undertaking communication strategies in spreading the awareness about combating the disease. At the outset, it was ensured that social distancing is observed and it was facilitated by a Whatsapp group consisting of teachers and students of the Department of Social Work, Head of the Gram Panchayat, and other important stakeholders like aganwadi workers, members of Self Help Groups, youth club. All the relevant information and important orders issued by the government were put in the group on a regular basis, which was further percolated in the community to follow. Secondly, banners on the precautions to be taken for combating the virus were printed and put on the prominent places in the villages for awareness generation. Members of Self Help Group formed under National Livelihood Mission were also roped in for stitching face mask and later distributed in the village.

Community engagement, multi-purposeful

There is no doubt that working with the community is multi-purposeful. Students, on one hand, build their personality and apply their classroom knowledge and skills in the real community while also learning the indigenous knowledge of the community. Teachers also get an opportunity to connect with rural realities for broadening their knowledge, helping them to build their professional credibility. They get innovative ideas for conducting research and organizing workshops, conferences, and seminars on community engagement. The community itself also feels empowered as their indigenous knowledge is acknowledged and respected in the process of community work. Community participation is the backbone of any successful program and since Independence, there has been a focus on the bottom-up approach for empowering rural society. A famous quote by Mwalimu Julius Nyerere is apt to understand the role of community in development, he said, "people cannot be developed, they can only develop themselves". On the same line, a community also develops itself over a period of time with its own experience and indigenous knowledge, what it needs a good facilitator and community mobilizer who guides the community and brings out the best from the community that bears positive results.

Dr. Manju Panwar is the Chairperson of the Department of Social Work, B.P.S Women's University, Khanpur Kalan, Sonipat, Haryana.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed are the personal views of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of Devdiscourse and Devdiscourse does not claim any responsibility for the same.)

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