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'What will happen to us in Bangladesh?'

By Elizabeth Stevens
The hygiene kits JAGO NARI and the Coastal Youth Network are distributing include a month’s worth of supplies for a family: ten bars of soap, a kilo of detergent, eight reusable sanitary pads, 50 disposable masks, information, and a bucket with lid and tap for washing hands. Duke Ivn Amin/JAGO NARI

As COVID-19 spreads quietly through communities in Bangladesh, Oxfam partner JAGO NARI shifts into high gear.

What do you do when you live in extreme poverty and are ordered to shelter in place? You get frantic, and for good reason.

“People are in a panic,” says Duke Ivn Amin. “They have few food reserves, and since they are no longer allowed to go out and work, their supplies are quickly running out. The situation is very bad.”

Amin is the emergency response team leader for JAGO NARI, an Oxfam partner organization in the Barguna district in southern Bangladesh.

“About ten of us are living at the JAGO NARI guest house so we can work out in the communities without putting our families at risk by going home at night,” he says. “It may be months before we see our families,” he adds.

JAGO NARI has been working in Barguna for more than 20 years, and Amin has been there from the start. So, while he’s missing his wife and 16-month-old son, he never seriously considered putting his own comfort and safety ahead of the Barguna communities. “We are at the front lines of this emergency,” he says. “We have to work.”

Fortunately, the government is starting distributions of rice, lentils, oil, and potatoes, which will make sheltering in place more realistic for many families, but without the knowledge and means to avoid transmission, they will remain acutely vulnerable.

“I feel very bad thinking about what’s coming,” says Amin.

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“Poor families need everyone’s support now,” says Duke Ivn Amin, shown here with hand sanitizer made and distributed by JAGO NARI. Photo: JAGO NARI

Building on local strengths

JAGO NARI is a Bangladeshi development organization that emphasizes women’s rights and environmental protection. The group worked closely with Oxfam for three years to strengthen its understanding of humanitarian work, and to build its capacity as an organization. Now, JAGO NARI is able not only to launch rapid emergency responses but also to raise funds for that work from a variety of sources, which is key to its survival.

As a local organization, its staff has a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the Barguna communities; when the coronavirus crisis emerged, JAGO NARI noticed that youth organizations were engaging immediately in the response.

“Youth are always at the front lines in an emergency. They move fast and contribute so much,” says Amin. “And in this emergency, they are much less vulnerable than elders.”

But the groups lacked experience, coordination, and proper safety protocols, so JAGO NARI invited them to help form a new organization: the Coastal Youth Network. Now they work together to get the word out, and they keep safety—their own and that of the communities—front and center.

JAGO NARI and the Coastal Youth Network have been disseminating public health information through leaflets and radio shows, and cars that blast the messages out of loudspeakers. They’ve been going door to door distributing face masks and leaflets; within the week—with support from Oxfam—they will also be distributing hygiene kits (see photo), and Oxfam will help them step up their public health awareness campaign in hopes of reaching 35,000 people.

Everyone needs to come forward

There is frustration in Amin’s voice as he talks about the catastrophe bearing down on his communities.

“The international community was late in waking up to this crisis,” he says, and his own country has also stumbled. “There are many workers who migrate from Bangladesh to other countries for jobs; they return by the thousands but are not quarantined when they arrive. Now, they are spread out all over the country.”

For the moment, the number of confirmed cases is small, but only a few hundred people—all of them in the capital city of Dhaka—have been tested, so when reality comes into focus, it could be grim. Doubly so because no one outside Dhaka is likely to have access to proper medical care.

As the wealthy countries of the world stagger under the weight of the coronavirus emergency, he asks, “What will happen to us in Bangladesh?”

“This is the biggest crisis our country has faced since the war of liberation,” he says, with a death toll that could dwarf the famine of 1974 or the powerful cyclones that hammer this country each year.

But thinking back to the war gives him a measure of hope. “Back then,” he says, “everyone came forward to do what they could. That’s what we need now, and I think it will happen.”

Oxfam is mobilizing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to save lives in vulnerable communities around the world. Working closely with our local partner organizations, we are delivering clean water, sanitation, and public health promotion programs; supporting food security; and getting cash to many of those in greatest need. In Bangladesh, Oxfam has helped many local organizations strengthen their capacity as humanitarian responders. We will work hand in hand with them in the COVID-19 response.

You can help Oxfam reduce the risk of COVID-19 to those most vulnerable.

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