By Syed Abbas Hussain
As the Covid-19 contagion spread indiscriminately around the globe, it seemed to hit the most vulnerable communities discriminately: poor families were pushed further into poverty, and minorities faced increasing persecution. Muslim minorities in Sri Lanka were initially scapegoated for spreading the virus, exposing them to greater discrimination. In Bangladesh, the Dalit community was more vulnerable to misinformation because of isolation and lower literacy rates. Early Asia Foundation research found that the pandemic’s economic impact on women was particularly severe. Far from being a great equalizer as some had predicted, the global pandemic deepened already existing economic and social inequalities.
In response, The Asia Foundation launched a regional project across South Asia, funded by the European Union, to build the resilience of vulnerable communities in the face of the pandemic. The South Asia Regional Project to Strengthen Community Resilience to Covid-19 was premised on the need to reach communities disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and lacking access to outreach and support.
The project worked specifically with the poor, women and girls, ethnic and religious minorities, and other marginalized populations in Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. We rolled out a multipronged awareness campaign to communicate critical information such as health safety practices and government relief services. The project also sought to inform pandemic policymaking by highlighting the specific needs of vulnerable communities.
A central part of the project was an initiative to combat the parallel pandemic of misinformation that seemed to spread as rapidly as the virus itself. This “fake-news pandemic” manifested itself in doctored videos and broadcast messages spreading medical fallacies and scapegoating vulnerable groups, which quickly went viral on social media and became a major obstacle to sensible public health measures.
It was especially important to dispel these myths and falsehoods among parts of the population that lack education and access to accurate information. One such community, among others targeted by the project, was the transgender community. Known in Pakistan as Khwaja Sira, this community has historically faced discrimination and isolation.
“Nargis” (not her real name), a transgender individual in a remote district of Pakistan, was among a group of 339 volunteers who were trained by the Community Resilience project to dispel fears in their community and to challenge pandemic misinformation and conspiracy theories. In several carefully designed workshops organized by The Asia Foundation’s local partner Accountability Lab, participants were first oriented with basic information about the pandemic, then trained to monitor rumors circulating on popular social media platforms and shown ways to effectively challenge them in online or in-person interactions.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the myths about Covid-19 circulating on social media made us feel scared about getting inoculated,” says Nargis. “We saw one popular video, for example, that claimed that vaccination would cause death within two years. After attending the sessions, we realized that all these rumors were fake.”
The training convinced Nargis to take the necessary steps to protect herself from the virus. “We had an awareness session where they taught us the facts about Covid-19 and the importance of vaccination. I have now been vaccinated, and many of my friends also got their shots after attending the sessions,” she says.
The project team also cultivated the support of policymakers and government officials. In India, for instance, the project supported district administrations and public health centers in the delivery of vaccines and provided capacity building workshops for 1,100 frontline workers. In Sri Lanka, district-level meetings attracted nursing officers, education directors, child protection officers, social service officers, and community police officers. One individual who attended these sessions remarked, “Earlier, I was like a hub in a network: I didn’t care about the truthfulness of the information, the audience who received it, or the effects of sharing it. Now I am like a switch in the network: I think about the truthfulness of the information and how it will be used before sharing it further.”
As to the overall results, around 16 million people in Pakistan engaged with the EU project on social media, while in Sri Lanka over 2 million social media users were reached through the #StrongerTogetherSL campaign. When the full range of communication platforms is included—social media, broadcast media, printed promotional materials, and community theater—the project reached over 40 million people.
South Asia is now emerging from the darkest days of the pandemic and forging ahead despite the prolonged and profound hardship. And Nargis sees reason for hope. “As a responsible citizen of Pakistan, it is very important to fight this menacing virus by dispelling rumors and getting vaccinated. I ask everyone to head to the nearest vaccination center. This way, we can all play a part in the battle against Covid-19.”
Syed Abbas Hussain is a senior program officer for The Asia Foundation in Pakistan. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.