In the complex matrix that produces and perpetuates poverty in the developing world, water, sanitation and hygiene play an instrumental role with far reaching implications in public health and economic vitality. In Bangladesh, the significance of access to safe water, adequate sanitation facilities and awareness of good hygiene practices was felt profoundly with the Covid-19 pandemic that put the world population to the ultimate test for survival. While 98.5% of the population in Bangladesh has access to drinking water, poor water quality combined with low handwashing practices attribute to a high burden of public health diseases. According to World Bank reports, despite the fact that most people have access to a toilet, 40% of the population use shared, rudimentary sanitation facilities and only 28% have a handwashing station equipped with soap and water. In deeply congested urban areas the issue is most pronounced with WASH-related diseases prevalent among low-income and extreme poor communities.

Under such acute limitations, addressing the sudden exigency of an infectious disease pandemic in a country of 161 million people presented manifold challenges. Prevention and preparedness against the novel Covid-19 virus requires due diligence to frequent handwashing, adequate sanitation and personal hygiene. The existing limitations in WASH facilities in Bangladesh left the vast majority of people in low income communities, particularly in congested urban areas, extremely vulnerable to the contagion. Protecting this community required immediate measures to mobilize resources at multiple levels to ensure the infrastructure, labour, material supplies and awareness raising and industry expertise.

Alongside government institutions, non-state actors including NGOs and the private sector have actively and collaboratively contributed to tackling the crisis. The first among non-government organizations to step up to the Covid-19 emergency during the first week of March 2020 was SAJIDA Foundation, a development organization with extensive experience in health, microfinance, WASH and disaster management. SAJIDA was also uniquely advantaged with expertise in the urban sector, where the Foundation has been operating financial, social and health-based services for low income communities for decades. “One of our major advantages was being able to quickly identity the exact points where the people are most vulnerable, especially in congested urban areas” stated Md Fazlul Hoque, Senior Director of Development Programs at SAJIDA. “For instance, in the case of water, sanitation and hygiene sector, we have a strong understanding of where the gaps exist and we have the knowledge and expertise to address them. As a result, we didn’t lose any time in leaping to action,” he added.

A leap into action: the SAJIDA Experience

Indeed, in the urban WASH sector, SAJIDA Foundation’s involvement has been comprehensive.  With a concerted focus on urban low-income communities where the issue is most severe, SAJIDA has been working with international partners including Citi Foundation as well as the government through several different projects to ensure sanitation, safe water, hygiene management and knowledge among children, adolescent girls, men and women. These projects include WASH for Urban Poortargeting the extreme poor in urban slums and schools; WASH for RMG Workers which addresses WASH needs of workers in garments factories; Public Sanitation Services which focuses on the management of model public toilets in partnership with the Dhaka South City Corporation; WaterCredit which provides financing services for WASH purposes alongside health and hygiene education to microfinance members; and WASH for Disaster Prone Areas which targets areas like Bakshiganj upazila in Jamalpur where lives and livelihoods are regularly devastated by natural disasters. Aside from this, SAJIDA also works to bolster the capacity of local government institutions to replicate best WASH practices through a Horizontal Learning Program (HLP).  Millions of people who are associated with these programs or are members of the program’s working areas have benefitted from these initiatives over the last decade.

“When the pandemic hit in March, the focus of our work shifted immediately towards Covid-19 response. All staff of the different WASH programs were immediately engaged in creating awareness by distributing Covid-19-related leaflets, hanging banners, posters and stickers in poor communities like slums and in garments factories. We knew that these were the places where the people stood at the highest risk, and they had to be prepared,” explained Md Shafiqul Islam, Senior Coordinator of SAJIDA’s WASH Program.

It was all too clear even before the official government protocols began in March 2020, that the shortage of WASH facilities was an enormous challenge that had to be overcome in order to contain spread of the virus. All of SAJIDA’s programs immediately shifted gears to align their activities with national efforts to combat Covid-19. While the country grappled with an impending lockdown, SAJIDA had already conducted a preliminary risk assessment and developed an emergency action plan. By the time an official lockdown was declared by the government on March 20, SAJIDA had already disseminated awareness material, distributing leaflets and displaying banners and stickers at sixteen slums covering approximately 6,453 households, while awareness sessions had reached around 30,000 people. Awareness campaigns were also underway during this period at three RMG factories reaching approximately 25,000 people while a week-long awareness campaign had been held at public toilets in the city under SAJIDA’s management. Nearly half a million COVID-19 awareness leaflets were distributed throughout the country by SAJIDA’s workforce and disaster-prone areas were also brought under the initiatives to create mass awareness and prevent social contamination of the virus.

However, while awareness was important, equally important was ensuring the means of protection for the urban poor. “There is no point in telling people to wash their hands frequently if they have no access to soap and handwashing facilities. So, we had to think on our feet and we had to come up with solutions quickly,” recalls Mr. Fazlul Haque.

By the end of March, SAJIDA’s WASH program had installed nearly 500 portable handwashing stations made with low-cost locally available resources and equipped with soap under the supervision of SAJIDA’s frontline staff, in more than 400 high-risk locations. To further reduce chances of contamination through contact, pedal-operated stations were also introduced, releasing soap and water through a step-pedal. In addition to this, a portable handwashing station was also established at an RMG factory for demonstration while a number of handwashing stations were set up at market places near the residence of garments workers in Sreepur and Kaliakoir upazila of Gazipur district and Adamji of Narayanganj district. Community members in these areas were engaged to ensure daily maintenance. In disaster prone areas, SAJIDA installed portable handwashing stations at 23 project locations.

SAJIDA’s WASH programs also prioritized the distribution of hygiene kits containing face mask, soap, cleaning detergent, bleaching powder and such essentials to vulnerable communities. The Foundation supplied hygiene kits to 50,000 people in urban slums, 3,000 households in disaster prone areas; while at the same time distributing nearly 300 waste bins in three RMG factories to encourage coughing and hygiene etiquette among staff.

Realizing the high risk of viral transmission in congested slums, SAJIDA deployed teams to carry out regular decontamination of slums, while social distancing markers were placed in the localities of RMG workers to ensure health safety. However, it wasn’t only low-income communities that were vulnerable to the virus. With every single initiative, the Foundation had to ensure the highest level of protection also for all staff and volunteers engaged in the frontlines. SAJIDA’s staff and volunteers were provided with PPEs, safety gears and trained on WHO protocols as well as SAJIDA’s internal protocols. Handwashing and sanitizing facilities were ensured at all office premises while social distancing was made mandatory.

Since March 2020, SAJIDA Foundation has devoted every resource in the service of the most vulnerable members within and beyond its working communities. Alongside WASH services, the Foundation has reached out with financial, health and essential emergency services despite the severe challenges facing all sectors during this period of unprecedented crisis. SAJIDA’s CEO Zahida Fizza Kabir explains, “Responding to humanitarian crisis with whatever resources we have at our disposal is at the heart of our values and the principle on which SAJIDA’s Founder – Syed Humayun Kabir – founded the organization.” Indeed, as the entire world struggles to weather what has been described as the worst global crisis in almost a century, organizations like SAJIDA Foundation light the way towards a new and improved “normal.”