Dr. Rajan Samuel has over 30 years of experience in microfinance, housing microfinance and social development. He has held various roles in the past in independent consulting and senior level positions with organisations such as Opportunity International, World Bank, Khula Finance, Department for International Development (DFID), International Fund For Agricultural Development (IFAD), CARE, World Vision and Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA).
COVID-19 has posed an unprecedented challenge to the global public health systems, resulting in unmitigated risks to global supply chains and creating hurdles in population mobility across the world. Throwing global economies into a perpetual tailspin, the pandemic has adversely impacted livelihoods and income securities of a large population globally, more so in poorer African, Asian and Latin American counties. Needless to say, it has been particularly devastating on India’s low-income communities like the daily wage labourers, sanitation workers and migrant workers who generally form part of the lower end of the social and economic spectrum. The impact of this seismic event is likely to be felt over the years, spawning the rise of a category of the “new poor” population who face the risk of being pushed into a never-ending cycle of debt and poverty.
The Government of India has taken steps to assess the social and economic impact of the pandemic on the lives of low-income populations, rolled out risk mitigation policies and improved response efficiencies of social welfare measures. As COVID-19 caseload in the second wave ebbs, the emphasis now should be to improve the scope of outreach of relief and rehabilitation measures to ensure that a broad section of the marginalized population is brought within the social and economic mainstream. Coordinating with like-minded partners can create a supportive infrastructure for combating the adverse impact of COVID-19. A multi-layered intervention strategy with a focus on improving the physical, mental and economic resilience of low-income populations and ensuring sustainable shelter solutions for them through disaster-resilient housing is the need of the hour.
The outbreak of infectious diseases like COVID-19 are more prevalent in a resource-constrained and space-deprived settings like slums. Efficiently managed and implemented waste management schemes and implementation of community-centric interventions like water, sanitation and hygiene are crucial to ensuring physical well-being, protecting human health and preventing disease transmission during health crises like the pandemic. Low-income countries like India need to place priority focus on investing in the setting up of good solid waste management and sanitation infrastructure. As the risk of COVID-19 infection rises mainly through direct human-to-human contact, low-income households need to inculcate the right behavioural change by practising appropriate hand and toilet hygiene to prevent the spread of infection. Marginal populations and their families should have equitable access to clean water, basic sanitation and handwashing facilities. Sustainable management and upkeep of these facilities can be ensured through increased involvement of the private sector.
Mass outreach and efficient implementation of the vaccination drive among the poor and disadvantaged populations across the country is key to making ensure the end of the pandemic. Advocacy and awareness campaigns can play a pivotal role in remedying vaccine hesitancy among the populace ensuring that citizens are inoculated in large numbers. Pharma companies should incentivize to increase vaccine production and a higher number of doses should be allocated for low-income families. Financial incentives like direct cash transfers should be given to low-income families to encourage them to get vaccinated. Emerging economies like India can leverage the benefits of Public-Private Partnerships and spur corporates to step up efforts for overcoming obstacles and improving access to vaccines.
COVID-19 not only affects the physical well-being but the pandemic and measures adopted to contains its spread has caused a wider psychological repercussion for disadvantaged populations. Sudden loss of livelihoods, isolation from support networks, lack of access to social and financial safety nets and losing family members to the disease have caused severe strain on the emotional and mental health of the population. This condition is more acute among the low-income group who faces all or most of the scenarios mentioned.
National response for tackling COVID-19 need to place equal emphasis on addressing the emotional and psychological challenges. The strategy to address the mental and psychological concerns of affected communities will need to be implemented through a three-tier approach; starting with the individual, then focusing on the family and lastly concentrating on the society or community. The emphasis will have to be on ensuring that mental health and emotional well-being are made an indispensable part of universal health coverage.
With a lack of income and livelihood sustenance and no access to the second source of income, a large number of vulnerable populations are facing an uncertain future. The second wave of the pandemic has widowed a large number of women who are left with little or no financial resources to support themselves and their children. State governments have already rolled out financial and social support schemes to offer financial assistance to eligible beneficiaries. Family pension schemes should be implemented to offer financial sustainability and maintenance to COVID-19 widows and children who have been orphaned by the pandemic.
Ensuring sustainability in affordable housing for disadvantaged communities in the country is the way forward. By leveraging emerging construction technologies like 3D printing, home construction can be expedited with savings in both time and resources, all the while ensuring a reduction in construction wastage. Harnessing technological innovation can help in the construction of low-cost disaster-resilient homes which can boost the efficiencies of disaster resettlement programs in the country. Prefabricated houses can be an effective means to promote mass housing schemes for the poor and marginalized populations in the country by offering advantages of being cost-effective, energy-efficient and eco-friendly.
The likely emergence of a third wave has brought focus on the need to implement sustainable housing solutions for vulnerable communities, mainly women and children. A healthy home provides both immunity and resilience. Targeted policies aimed towards building resilient communities through a holistic lens will ensure sustained and progressive improvements in the most vulnerable communities in the country.