How COVID-19 is tragically exposing systemic vulnerabilities in Peru

How COVID-19 is tragically exposing systemic vulnerabilities in Peru

Despite early assessments that Peru was faring well in the COVID-19 pandemic and that its preparedness was due to its strict application of austerity and reforms over the last 30 ...

COVID-19 | Ephemeral universalism in the social protection response to the COVID-19 lockdown in the Philippines

COVID-19 | Ephemeral universalism in the social protection response to the COVID-19 lockdown in the Philippines

Since March 2020, the Philippines has implemented one of the world’s strictest and longest lockdowns in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused severe disruptions in peoples’ livelihoods. The ...

COVID-19 | Putting COVID-19 into context(s)

COVID-19 is a hazard, but does not produce the risks that we now see unfolding throughout the world, says ISS researcher Dorothea Hilhorst, who recently participated in a webinar organized by Humanitarian Knowledge Exchange platform Kuno to reflect on how the COVID-19 pandemic is being handled and what could be done differently. Here’s what she had to say.

Covid Checks in IndiaCOVID-19 is sweeping the globe and widely triggers top-down and centralised emergency measures. I don’t recall another crisis that has created such a response, even though the actual numbers of people affected have been very modest compared to many of the other crises we have in this world, including the lack of access to clean water, resource competition in mining areas, conflict and refugee problems, and climate change. In the beginning, I often found myself thinking if only the world would muster the courage to also address these other crises, and give them more priority than short-term economic gain.

However, it is also clear that there are strong limitations to the bold and robust responses of top-down emergency management. Firstly, I really resent how we seem to conflate the hazard of COVID-19 with subsequent risks. Yes, COVID-19 is a nasty and infectious virus. But it is not a virus that dictates that it should lead to widespread food shortages or increased marginalisation of the poor and vulnerable populations. These are spillover crises that relate to but are not directly caused by the virus.

These spillover crises are not just happening, they are let be by policy. When we signal the risk of food insecurity in the wake of COVID-19, I see agencies jumping to raising funds and stockpiling to feed the world. However, why don’t we talk about preventing this crisis? Why not focus on diplomacy to continue food exports from surplus-producing countries? Why not ensure that markets stay open and continue to function? Why not give peasants free range to go to their fields (at distance from other human beings) instead of locking them down in their houses?

Secondly, we have to be really aware about the many instances where governments have instrumentalised COVID-19 for other purposes, such as to curb the freedoms of civil society, to silence the media, or to undermine political opponents. Hungary is a case in point, where the government, under the pretext of misinformation about COVID-19, has closed critical media outlets. Authorities in many areas are seen to instrumentalise COVID-19 to increase surveillance and control, at the detriment of human rights and civil society, with rumours increasing the mistrust between people and their state.

Thirdly, while there is no doubt that top-down policies and expert knowledge is required to address the crisis, there are also indications about the limitations of this approach. Top-down approaches may ignore, stifle, or expire local coping capacities, social networks, and small-scale formal and informal institutions. Based on previous experiences and research, this may have grave consequences and render the COVID-19 response counter-productive:

  1. Local institutions are people’s first and very often only line of defence against crises. Where top-down policies don’t reach out to communities to provide services and when people cannot rely on local institutions, they become increasingly vulnerable. Why close schools instead of mobilising teachers to help spread messages about personal hygiene in relation to COVID-19?
  2. In areas where state-society relations are already characterised by mistrust before the crisis, there is a high risk that people will not believe the messages about COVID-19 coming from the authorities and will try to circumvent policies aiming to prevent the spread of the virus. A notorious example was found when the Ebola pandemic erupted in Sierra Leone: people sometimes hid patients to avoid their hospitalisation.
  3. One-sided top-down policies can contribute to spillover crises at the local level, including crises of livelihoods and food security. This can lead to adverse coping mechanisms that actually increase the risks of COVID-19. There are signals that some women in the Eastern DRC who are prohibited to cross the border with Rwanda for their petty trade now resort to transactional sex to feed their families.

Let’s stay alert, or as we say nowadays, let us be ‘woke’ about these consequences of responding to COVID-19. The virus is a hazard, but does not produce the risks that we now see unfolding throughout the world. Top-down measures need to be linked up with bottom-up initiatives and coping mechanisms to effectively deal with the crisis.

Hilhorst’s discussion was part of a webinar titled ‘How COVID empowers local civil society organizations’. Other speakers included Hero Anwar, Program Director at REACH Iraq; Gloria Modong, Executive Director, Titi Foundation South Sudan, and Deputy Chair, NGO Forum South Sudan; and Feliciano Reyna, Executive Director and founder of Accíon Solidaria in Venezuela and representative of Civilis.

The entire webinar can be (re-)watched here: https://www.kuno-platform.nl/events/kuno-covid-cafe-how-covid-empowers-local-civil-society-organizations-in-the-south/

This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Read all articles of this series here.

Thea Hilhorst

About the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. She is a regular author for Bliss. Read all her posts here.

Title Image Credit: Gwydion M. Williams on Flickr

COVID-19 | How ‘COVID-19 hunger’ threatens the future of many by Jimena Pacheco

COVID-19 | How ‘COVID-19 hunger’ threatens the future of many by Jimena Pacheco

By Posted on

As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses and lockdowns continue, even more people are suffering from hunger and malnutrition due to their inability to access nutritious food. The pandemic has revealed the ...

COVID-19 | Restaurants are empty, but the work continues: freelance food delivery in times of COVID-19 by Roy Huijsmans

COVID-19 | Restaurants are empty, but the work continues: freelance food delivery in times of COVID-19 by Roy Huijsmans

Freelance food delivery workers have largely had to make their own decisions about working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Who are they? How has their work been affected, and how have ...

COVID-19 | How Kerala’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is highlighting inadequate responses elsewhere in India by Sreerekha Sathi

The Indian state of Kerala seems to have addressed the COVID-19 pandemic remarkably well, limiting the amount of virus-related infections and deaths through its assertive approach. Kerala’s outlier position in India is well known, and its development model that differs from those of other Indian states might well be the cause of its successes in responding to COVID-19. Central to this development model—and the state’s response—is a well-functioning public healthcare system rooted in the state’s left-wing government. The rest of India and other countries can learn several lessons from Kerala’s government and its people, if they are willing to listen.


By the end of April, India’s coronavirus infections exceeded 40,000 cases, while around 1,300 people have died from the virus. India has been under a severe lockdown since 25 March, which due to the country’s socio-economic dynamics has caused many problems for working-class and unemployed people, especially for the large body of internal migrant labourers and marginalized communities, many without the resources to self-quarantine. Millions of Indians will face starvation due to a sudden loss of income as the lockdown has made it impossible for them to engage in economic activity. More than 90 percent of India’s population of 1.3 billion people work in the informal sector, while two-thirds of the population moreover have to get by on less than US$2 a day.

Kerala, a small state on India’s southern tip, was hit first and hardest. The state reported its first case of coronavirus (COVID-19) on January 29th, and by May counted 500 infections, however had only three virus-related deaths with a recovery rate above 90 percent. It is evident that the state with its population of 33 million people has had significant successes thus far in staving off the virus. Here, for example, there is no shortage of medical masks for health professionals, no lack of hand sanitizers, and people living in the state have not been running around trying to hoard basic necessities as has happened in rich countries like the United States. The story of the state’s success in controlling the pandemic has attracted global attention, particularly because this state in India, one of the poorest countries in the Global South, has managed to do what many others with vastly more resources have not been able to.

So how has Kerala been doing this?

The coronavirus epidemic hit the state as it was in the process of recovering from two majors disasters that occurred in 2018—severe floods and the spread of the deadly Nipah virus. These disasters shaped responses to COVID-19 by creating a readiness to respond to future disasters, so that when the coronavirus emerged, the state and local communities were dedicated toward collectively fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, knowing what was at stake.

When the number of coronavirus cases reached around 100, the state government’s popular health minister declared a campaign called ‘Break the Chain’ to fight the further spread of the virus. The campaign that reached deep into Kerala’s densely populated cities and villages was focused on sharing information about the virus and how to fight it by educating people on maintaining personal hygiene. The state government in a short time installed water taps in all important public transportation hubs and public offices and provided free hand sanitizers. It also informed people about the importance of social distancing and self-quarantining. Students from colleges and universities along with volunteers from different sectors were entrusted with the duty of producing facial masks and hand soap and distributing them through community institutions. This engaged public response is world away from the policies elsewhere in India and many other parts of the world that consigned people to their houses, leaving them to fend for themselves without providing adequate support.

As in other countries, while health professionals remain at the center of the fight against the virus, it is important to point out just how central the community healthcare workers in Kerala have been. The backbone of the fight have been women called Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs) and Anganwadi workers (Sreerekha, 2017) who are employed in the state’s social welfare schemes and who were able to reach every nook and cranny of the state’s numerous cities, villages, and towns to trace contacts effectively. Alongside these women workers have been the state police and fire departments as well as other emergency services who have helped the state fulfill services such as distributing essential medicines to non-corona patients.

Most importantly, state-backed community kitchens have been a lifeline for many hungry residents. For the first time in history, by the third week of March, Kerala opened community kitchens in every village and municipality of the state, providing free cooked food so that no-one would go hungry during the lockdown. This contrasts very sharply with the experience of poor people in many other parts of India, where they are left mostly at the mercy of NGO or volunteer help.

How Kerala does it differently

A well-functioning public healthcare system is at the core of the state’s response, the foundation for which goes back to the much popular, well-debated and critiqued Kerala development model (Ravi Raman, 2010). The state is led by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPIM), well known for its experiments with projects related to the grassroots decentralization of government and community-driven developmental planning in the 1990s. The Kerala development model does have its limitations, especially in addressing issues of gender and caste hierarchies and discrimination, and its successes have been achieved even alongside the pressures and compromises with liberal modernity. The state’s successes in fighting the pandemic though have been possible due to relevant steps taken on time and owing to the functional state mechanisms supplemented by the support and commitment of local community networks and an educated population.

With a very high number of expatriates and a big tourism industry the state needed to quickly implement restrictive measures. This has not been an easy path for Kerala, especially considering the fact that its officials are in a constant battle with the right-wing BJP central government. Time and again, the BJP central government has tried ‘to teach Kerala a lesson’ by cutting its funds or even halting the arrival of aid during emergencies. The right-wing party has until now failed to ever win any elections in the state.

Amidst all these dynamics, Kerala presents a useful lesson to the world as a state that even in the face of extreme adversity through sensitive and practical programs and with the support of a politically educated community has been able to take major steps to protect the interests of its residents, particularly marginalized and working class populations. Although the COVID-19 threat remains, Kerala has collectively mobilized to confront it. Kerala’s public healthcare system functions through effective local development measures and community and state networks to make it possible not only to tackle the COVID-19 threat, but also to protect the well-being of its people in so doing.


This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


About the author:IMG_4882

Sreerekha Sathi is Assistant Professor of Gender and Political Economy at at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University in The Hague. Her research interests span theories of women’s work, feminist critiques of development, feminist research methodologies and social movements in the global south, specifically South Asia.