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COVID-19 Crisis Responses from the Global South

Civil society views from India, Mali, Mozambique and Nepal

Anabela Lemos from JA! (Mozambique), Ibrahim Togola from MFC (Mali), Ritu Priya from SADED (India) and Uddhab Pyakurel from SADED-Nepal (Nepal) shared their views on the COVID-19 crisis responses in their countries in the Siemenpuu webinar on 27 May 2020. Below are the main issues discussed by the invited speakers.

Anabela Lemos, Justiça Ambiental (JA!), Mozambique:

Mozambique is a country in crisis. There are many issues with gas, coal, forests and agribusiness. Corona virus makes matters worse. The health system is completely breaking down. The system serves people, who can afford it. The government was slow to react. The worst affected area was Cabo Delgado and the gas fields there. About 2/3 of persons infected are in Cabo Delgado.

Government considered that a total lockdown would harm people in informal sector seriously. People would die because of hunger, not virus. Government adopted emergency measures, but not lockdown. The schools are closed. Those who can afford to have internet, can have distant studies, but most people can’t have that. Civil society tries to find some help in this, too.

Civil society has joined forces in considering how to help government in this situation, the biggest worry being the most vulnerable people. People are not able to sell their produce due to fear of infection. Also the worry is that a lot of workers will be fired. Additionally, there is a risk that the investors use the opportunity so that their projects do not get usual publicity for the clearances of the projects as supposed to be.

50 NGOs from different backgrounds came together to discuss the situation and to make position paper/declaration based on it.

Worst is that JA! and other organisations are not able to visit the communities they are working with and are not fully aware of the situation on the ground. Additionally, they are afraid that visiting communities would risk their health by spreading the infection to communities that have avoided it this far.

Now they have acted as watchdogs in monitoring the human rights situation caused by the disease. In Cabo Delgado the situation has been utilised in suppressing the voices critical to gas exploration. For example, it has been told that people have disappeared there, but knowing the exact situation is difficult due to restrictions put in place. They are still in the situation that they are trying to understand what they can do.

In Mozambique, most people are dependent on farming for their livelihood. There is no support system for bringing their produce to the cities. The country is dependent on food imports from South Africa. The crisis has shown a need for system changing, and brought the things JA! has been advocating for more than 20 years more visible. However, it has looked so that this far it has been mostly the companies which have benefitted from the situation. The bailout measures have been directed to companies, not to the people losing their shops.

African Climate Justice Groups have a made a Statement on COVID-19 titled ‘A new Africa is possible’. It covers wide ground from food sovereignty to fossil fuel extraction and just recovery. Meanwhile, Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa’s has made a statement titled ‘COVID-19: A time for solidarity and resilience’.

Ibrahim Togola, Mali-Folkecenter Nyetaa (MFC), Mali:

In Mali, the situation is very similar as in most of Africa. In March there was some panicking based on what was seen happening in some industrialised countries. Their economy could not be closed down as in those countries, because people are living on a day to day basis, and people have to go everyday out in order to make their living.  Also the hospitals would not be able to deal with the pandemic situation.

Now there are about 1000 confirmed cases and more than 50 people died. Around 500 people have recovered from the disease. Most of those infected got the disease in Europe before returning to Mali. Almost all the neighbouring countries have closed down their markets and mosques, but not Mali.

No one knows the full extent of COVID-19 in Mali. Many of those infected are parliamentarians, businessmen etc. – so many consider that the disease is for wealthy people. But they are the ones who have been hospitalised.

The population is on average young people with better resistance. And possibly COVID has not reached the peak yet. Even though the disease has not hit Mali very hard, the economy has suffered quite much. But the cities have suffered more than rural areas.

Even though the food exports from neighbouring countries have been reduced, the food prices in Mali have not increased. The neighbouring countries are more affected, because they have been more dependent on food imports.

What are the government priorities vs peoples’ priorities? Government tried first to impose night time curfews, but because of people protesting, they were forced to give up the idea. “You are not feeding us, so you cannot ask us to stay at home”. Also limitations in number of people in public transportation are hard to be imposed.

MFC jointly with some other organisations produced COVID information material in almost all the languages of Mali. Those materials were made available everywhere in Mali. That effort was done with no external funding involved. Together with a handicraft promotion network there was produced low-cost protective gear from local materials and made them available for health care personnel. Also information on sanitisation and so on was broadcast in local radios etc.

The situation has been bringing people more realization that we are all interconnected with this issue. We have joint responsibilities and challenges together. How we can influence the future programmes to be more human faced? What will come after this COVID? Support has been given to bigger companies. But how to support farmers, small businesses and informal sector? What are the lessons to be learned to that direction?

Ritu Priya, South Asia Dialogues on Ecological Democracy (SADED), India:

Indian situation is quite complex. They have about 1,5 million cases with about 4400 deaths. 60% of the cases are located in 5-6 cities. About half of the districts in India do not have any cases.

First case came in January but the government response came after mid-March. Then it was imposed “the Great Indian Lockdown”, a complete, universal lockdown of 1,3 billion people. When the announcement was made, there was only four hours’ time for people to get prepared. All the advisories were given with the middle class in mind. However, around 70% of people are dependent on informal sector. In informal sector the consequence was a matter of basic survival for the people, because they were left out of work.

The way things took place strong, hardworking people were taken away their dignity. Large numbers of them were seen walking hundreds of kilometres in the heat India is facing, in trying to get back to their rural homes and communities. This is part of the “other epidemic” that is on, leading to hunger and disease crisis. There have been a large number of accidents on the roads. About 660 deaths have been addressed to road accidents or suicides of those people walking back home.

The government has introduced laws that they have wanted to bring in a longer time, like amendments to labour laws, which reduces the rights of the workers. Many consequences of new laws will only be seen, when things open up again.

Some economic relief packages have been brought out by the government, but they are targeting bigger companies and much less to migrants. Also there is something extra for public health, but not sufficiently.

Access to health care is also a problem. All public hospitals were transferred for COVID-19 quarantine and treatment purposes. But many of them are empty. Private hospitals are partly closed down, because their safety standards have not been seen adequate for the personnel. There was initially big shortage of personal protective gear and testing kits, but the situation is improving now. There was also some material imported from China, but were returned for not being of good quality.

Civil society has given critical voices about the situation and has been given space in some newspapers as well (but not much in TV).

Civil society has been very active in the situation. Peoples’ health movement started groups to monitor the situation, and periodically put out statements about the measures that should be taken. There has been a lot of migrant worker support and relief for food and transport. Information posters etc. have been produced about the protection measures to be taken by migrant workers and in rural areas.

A national civil society coalition has been formed, which has been conducting online surveys to find out the situation on the ground. Different kinds of webinars about the situation have been organised in large numbers.

A lot of things are happening, but the civil society is not fully aware yet what is taking place (like communalising the stigma of spreading of the virus and arresting people taking part in the earlier demonstrations in Delhi).  The need for sharing information has been very widely felt.

Communities have been able to create some level of resilience, for example, in creating direct linkages between farmers and urban consumers. Also relief has been provided for migrants along their routes. There have been tribal health initiatives, and use of traditional medicine and home remedies in improving the immunity level in communities. There are also field trials in monitoring those.

One major challenge is how to develop our own anti-authoritarian resilience by re-enforcing decentralised governance. Local food sovereignty has to be strengthened. Global challenge is that the medical intervention has been taken from industrial world point of view. In many parts of the world this has strengthened authoritarian rule of people.

There has been competition on resources between countries and states, but also between families and communities, too, causing breakdown of social bonding. These social bonds should be brought back.

Disparities have had a lethal impact. There should be campaigning against these disparities from Sustainable Development Goals points of view.

Uddhab Pyakurel, SADED-Nepal, Nepal:

First COVID-19 case in Nepal was identified 10th March. Restrictions were put in place in March. Now the situation is escalating. Today there were 118 new cases, the total being 885 confirmed cases, and four deaths. But the testing is not extensive at all.

Despite restrictions, maybe around 40 % of the private vehicle traffic in Kathmandu is still running.

Due to restrictions, a lot of urban workers were forced to leave the cities and get to their rural homes, covering even hundreds of kilometres by foot. Some migrant workers returning from India did even gross Mahakali River by swimming in order to return to Nepal. There were some quarantine centres opened, but in very poor condition, with no social distancing offered and no necessary facilities.

Most sufferers are daily laborers and migrants. There are government relief packages, but not for the poorest of the poor.

There is not sufficiently personal protective equipment, and there has been corruption involved in stockpiling it, resulting also material of inferior quality.

There have been cases of people dying due to lack of food. Also maternal mortality rate has grown six times bigger during the lockdown.

Civil society has come together in order to plan what to do in this situation, also under the framework of World Social Forum.


Article photo: Covid-19 message (Photo: Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa)