Navigating through the tides of the pandemic: Updates from the Health and Environment Project
by Biswa Swaroop Das and Madhuri Mondal
The Health & Environment programme was initiated in February 2020 in Odisha. In the same month, COVID-19 started spreading across the entire country and we had to start working remotely due to lockdown and associated restrictions. In one of our previous newsletters we elaborate on how the team helped communities deal with the pandemic and its fallout. While providing relief to the fishing communities in distress, we realized how important it is to understand the impacts of the pandemic and the lockdown on these communities to better understand their needs and build their resilience to such external shocks. Read more…
COVID-19 and the associated lockdown in India in 2020 have impacted fishing communities gravely. It has revealed systemic gaps and vulnerabilities faced by these communities. In order to improve long-term wellbeing in the project sites of Odisha and South Andaman, it was important to identify and understand these gaps by assessing the impact of COVID-19 on their health, livelihoods and other social aspects. The team initially conducted a few semi-structured telephonic interviews with key stakeholders in end 2020. Once the situation improved, discussions were conducted in person. The pandemic and the lockdown restrictions not only impacted their access to resources, food security and nutrition but it also had a big impact on their relational wellbeing and mental health. We provide some insights from our field sites in the following paragraphs.
In Odisha, with the lockdown being enforced, many fishers were barred from going to the sea and lost access to the markets. With little to almost zero income, fishers found it difficult to manage even their daily meals. Women fishers who used to sell the catch in nearby markets and towns had to borrow from others to manage their households as other alternative sources of income had dwindled. The nearby markets of Huma, Palur and Chatrapur were shut for many months and thus the fisherwomen who were dependent on these markets to sell dry fish and other fish products had few sources of income.
Though there were a negligible number of COVID cases within the communities, many couldn’t access emergency medical services owing to travel restrictions due to the lockdown. Many people also suffered from stress and anxiety due to the lack of income and due to the fear of contracting COVID-19. Community health workers were important pillars of strength for the community during the pandemic but were overburdened, working round the clock conducting door to door surveys and taking care of migrant workers who were quarantined, in addition to their usual duties.
With schools and colleges being shut, the education of children was also gravely affected. Online education is not very accessible to these communities either due to lack of devices, poor or no internet connectivity or due to difficulty in understanding the content.
Around 600 migrant fishworkers had returned to these villages after the lockdown. They used to work as crew in fishing trawlers off the coasts of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Goa, Kerala, Karnataka, etc. Many of them also used to work as construction labour in Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad. With the enforcement of lockdown, they were stranded with little access to food, water, health services and transport facilities. Many of them ended up spending their savings to return home. After returning, most of them had no alternative income sources to support their families. Though there was a provision of employing them under the MGNREGA scheme, many of them were unable to acquire a job card (a document which legally empowers the registered households to apply for work), as a result of which they chose to migrate back to where they were working before.
Even months after the lockdown was lifted, fishing communities in Ganjam were still struggling to make ends meet when the second wave of the pandemic hit. Many are unable to pay their debts as fishing related livelihoods and small scale businesses have taken a huge hit.
The situation in the fishing villages of South Andaman was more or less similar. Compared to other sites, access to food and nutrition among people in the Wandoor community was better as many of them own land and thus had some secondary sources of income to fall back upon such as the areca nut plantations. Lack of transport for carrying out livelihoods like fishing or getting access to medicines has been a major problem. During the lockdown, most of the families stocked up groceries. However, once the lockdown ended and they had exhausted their savings, they found it difficult to reinitiate their fishing livelihoods. Buying supplies for fishing trips was difficult as the returns were not good.
The families dependent on tourism felt a huge impact on their livelihoods as tourism was closed for many months. Many youth who were employed in the tourism sector started seeking employment as daily wage laborers. Some also started fishing and applied for fishing licenses. Even though the fishing sector took a huge hit due to the closure of the supply chains, it at least provided sustenance. The prices of fish at the local level also fell as people’s buying capacity had reduced.
In the Junglighat community, the major challenge the community faced was due to the breakdown of supply chains and access to markets as fishing is the main source of livelihood there. The community is densely populated and was declared as a containment zone due to a rise in the number of COVID cases, and hence the restriction on movement was very strict. Though fish was declared as an essential commodity and fishing was allowed, it was difficult to follow the restrictions on the number of crew and sanitization protocols. Due to the lack of transport and market access, women fish vendors found it difficult to sell their catch. Some fish traders took orders for selling via phone or Whatsapp. We also observed that, during these times of crisis, families shared resources and strong leadership in some communities helped communication and coordination among the community members.
In both the communities in South Andaman, newly settled families or migrant workers faced more issues as they had less social or financial capital. They also stayed in rental houses and found it difficult to pay rent during the lockdown as there was hardly any income.
Overall, the assessment showed that there is a need to build the capacities of small-scale fishing communities to make them resilient to shocks like the pandemic. It is important to strengthen their health systems, their access to information and use of technology, and to empower youth in the community to show more leadership during crises. Maintaining a database of migrant workers is critical for all communities. It was observed that increasing dependence on fish export and tourism made the livelihoods vulnerable to restrictions on transport. Even though these opportunities provide communities with a good income source, traditional practices like drying fish helped the community in retaining sources of nutrition. Strong leadership, presence of committees or unions to undertake advocacy with the administration, social capital and use of technology gave the communities some resilience to tackle the crisis.