The COVID-19 pandemic tragically continues to surge in India. The strict lockdown protocols may have stunted the transmission of the disease in some parts of the country, but the coronavirus continues to spread, particularly in cities with large, dense populations and major economic activity. Social distancing is almost impossible to practice in densely populated areas such as slums, where residents live in congested spaces with poor water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) facilities and practices, and shared public amenities. Thus, several of India’s slums are major hotspots for the virus.

Further, the majority of slum residents are informal day-wage laborers and migrant workers who have lost their livelihoods through the pandemic and the lockdown—and become more vulnerable to the disease because of food insecurity and limited transport options. The extended lockdown and related COVID-19 response measures have adversely impacted other critical health needs and health determining factors. For example, patients with hypertension, cancer, or tuberculosis have been unable to access their medication or treatment.

In other pandemics, such as Ebola in West Africa or SARS in Asia, interventions that adopted a community-centric lens were more successful than others in driving sustainable impact. Studies revealed that crisis preparedness and response is not effective without the participation of vulnerable communities. When involved in the mitigation process, the communities’ “confidence, capacities, and coping mechanisms develop in an upward spiral,” and they are more accepting of and amenable to remedial initiatives and approaches. For example, at the height of the Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, fears and misconceptions existed about Community Care Centers (CCCs)—government facilities set up with UNICEF’s support—which led to them not being utilized to capacity. When additional CCCs were set up, the government consulted community leaders and influencers through the entire process of site selection, construction, and management of care, support and nutritional services. A social mobilizer interviewed as part of a related study noted, “Now the scenario has changed. The communities are so mobilized that people want to access CCCs, treat their loved ones early, and get more information on how they can protect their families from Ebola.”

Beyond an epidemic context, the World Health Organization’s ENGAGE-TB approach similarly aims to integrate community-based tuberculosis (TB) diagnosis, treatment and management into the programs of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The approach, initially implemented in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, and the United Republic of Tanzania, resulted in an increased utilization of TB care facilities, and increased disease notification rates.

Policymakers in India have recognized the important role of communities as part of a health crisis strategy. The National Health Policy 2017 calls for “close collaboration with local self-government and community-based organizations” as well as “an army of community members trained as first responders for accidents and disasters.” The Disaster Management Act, 2005, under which the pandemic is being managed in India, also refers to the importance of community engagement.

This rapid study explores how different community engagement models have played out in the context of the COVID-19 crisis in the major slums of Mumbai. We highlight why community involvement in slums is critical to the COVID-19 response and describe activities where communities have been engaged. We then synthesize the prevalent models for community engagement and assess the factors for replicating and scaling them in the slums of Mumbai and beyond, both to tackle the pandemic and to build community resilience for future pandemics or other physical, social, and economic shocks and stresses.

Read the full article about the COVID-19 crisis in the slums of Mumbai by Pritha Venkatachalam, Niloufer Memon at The Bridgespan Group.