Amrita MSW (Master of Social Work) students reached out to impoverished SHG women in Kerala communities to monitor well being during the COVID-19 lockdown.

In the midst of the current global pandemic, India’s national lockdown and measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 have been effective thus far, albeit at a cost, particularly among women of rural India. In order to gain a better understanding of the immediate impacts of the pandemic and lockdown, a phone survey was conducted among about 400 below-the-poverty-line women members of self-help groups in Kerala to assess the situation of their households. The great majority of households reported extreme declines in income and employment. Distribution of free rice rations seems to be working effectively, but most respondents did not report receiving monetary transfers from the government. This AMMACHI Labs study demonstrates how universities may engage their students in tackling contemporary social issues by offering them opportunities to translate their learned classroom knowledge to practical, real-world settings.

ABSTRACT

In the midst of the current global pandemic, India’s national lockdown and measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 have been effective thus far, albeit at a cost, particularly among women of rural India. In order to gain a better understanding of the immediate impacts the pandemic and lockdown, a phone survey was conducted among about 400 below-the-poverty-line women members of self help groups in Kerala to assess the situation of their households. The great majority of households reported extreme declines in income and employment. Distribution of free rice rations seems to be working effectively, but most respondents did not report receiving monetary transfers from the government. Additionally, the study demonstrates how universities may engage their students in tackling this contemporary social issue, by offering them opportunities to translate their learned classroom knowledge to practical, real-world settings.

INTRODUCTION

The nature of the COVID-19 outbreak forced most conversations regarding the pandemic to digital platforms thus enabling the impact on different demographics to be studied in real time. Some social groups and communities depend solely on social networking, such as those in natural resource based livelihoods, where entire communities may participate together for subsistence. One such social group that relies heavily on collaborations and social cohesion is the Self Help Group (SHG) system. Typically, women in SHGs, from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, meet together and manage finances together.1

Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham and its parent organization, the Mata Amritanandamayi Math (MAM), has been actively involved in SHG formation and training since 2005. Amrita Sree, a community based SHG program was initially launched by MAM, as an intervention to build resilience in coastal communities after the 2004 Asian Tsunami. The program was later extended to the farming community as well, as a proactive solution to combat farmer suicide. The program has since spread throughout Kerala, and to 21 states in the country. Currently there are more than 10,000 Amrita SREE SHGs with more than 250,000 women participating across India.

The Government of India's national lockdown as a measured response to the spread of COVID-19, immediately forced SHGs, including Amrita Sree, into standstill. The groups' primary forum, wherein financial decisions were discussed and made, was no longer available. This unique circumstance presented an opportunity to conduct a rapid telephonic survey to study the immediate impact of the lockdown on Amrita Sree SHG members in Kerala.

The study primarily investigates the effect of the lockdown on SHG women in Kerala. Women in Kerala are primarily tasked with duties of family caregiver, and it is therefore of interest to learn of the effects of the lockdown. Of specific interest are the following areas: access to availability of food, income and water, as well as their health and general wellbeing. As news surfaces of how SHG members across India are responding to the current public health crisis3 within their capacity, the study also looks at SHG activity during the lockdown.

The survey was conducted by graduate students as a part of their Master’s in Social Work (MSW) fieldwork requirement. The lockdown provided social work students with an opportunity to practice their learned skills on a contemporary social problem. A total of 33 students from the MSW program were trained to conduct telephone surveys and collected data over a one-week period.

In many parts of the world, university students, who may have more free time since the introduction of work and mobility restrictions, can make a significant impact in monitoring the health, social and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. We believe the model of action described in this document offers students a way to do so in a way that utilizes their skills and enables them to gain practical experience in their field of study. This may be especially relevant, but not restricted, to social work students. Projects of this kind can therefore provide both societal and educational benefits, and we invite other universities in India and around the world to join us in this endeavour. Creating a coherent monitoring program across multiple universities can provide decision makers with a powerful dashboard of the social impacts of the pandemic and economic restrictions. Our methods and survey instruments will be made available to any institution who might be interested in joining such an effort.

METHODS

A survey instrument was designed and validated by Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham researchers in collaboration with researchers from Tel Aviv University. Students from Amrita were trained to carry out the phone surveys; data collection commenced April 4, 2020.

Out of approximately 2,700 Amritasree SHGs that had more than 5 members with phone numbers, approximately 300 SHGs were randomly selected and invited to participate in the study. Five women from each of these selected SHGs were then randomly selected for the survey (a total of 1470 women).

Data was collected on the following parameters: basic household information, impact of COVID-19 on their income generation, consumption, finance, food, water and other supplies, as well as domestic situation and mental health. The surveys typically took about a half hour to complete. Permission was taken from the respondents on their availability and time. Data was collected from the respondents who consented.

RESULTS

The results reported are focused on women who were BPL card holders. Out of the 1400 candidates shortlisted, only 67% were reachable, available and willing to participate in the survey, the rest were unreachable or unavailable (16% were wrong numbers, another 14 % did not answer the calls, and 6% not interested in taking the survey among other reasons). A total of 411 of the 1400 shortlisted women who were reachable or available to talk, belonged to the BPL category. During the telephonic survey, the surveyors identified financial and psychological issues affecting respondents during the lockdown period. Among the respondents surveyed, 56% reported a below-poverty-line (BPL) economic status.

EMPLOYMENT AND INCOME GENERATION

The main occupations of the principal income earner in the family include fisherman (43%), daily wage laborer (33%) and salaried employee (10%).

About 77% of the principal income generators were reported to have stopped working since the lockdown (although they did not lose their job); an additional 12% have also stopped working but have lost their job. About 10% are still working as usual. Normally, the average number of working days in a week is 5.25, but has reduced to 0.5 days (87% reporting 0 working days) in the week prior to the date of the survey (from 5th to 11th April 2020).

Of the 30 respondents who reported having a small informal enterprise, 10% felt no difficulty in running the enterprise, 26% saw a reduction in customers, 17% could not obtain supplies and 47% could not go out to operate the enterprise.

When asked about loss of income, 20% of them reported a little loss, almost 50% reported large loss, and almost 30% reported complete decline. Only 3% reported no loss in income.

MONETARY SUPPORT

The Government of Kerala announced financial aid to families in the BPL and Antyodaya Card households a sum of INR 1000 each. When asked whether they received any transfer from the government over the preceding two weeks before 5th April 2020, only 17% said yes. 10% said they did not know and 73% said they did not. Only about 10% obtained a loan or money from other sources.

In their closing comments, the respondents shared their worries related to income and employment. Those who lost their job indicated an expectation of employment support from Amrita.

Majority of respondents commented in the closing remarks of the interview that they feel anxious about the economic loss due to lockdown, but they understood the importance of lockdown during this period and they are ready to stay back at home.

FOOD SECURITY

From April 1st onwards the Government of Kerala announced free distribution of 15 kg of rice grain to 81.14 lakh ration card holders in Kerala as a part of the State’s mission to guarantee a “hunger free Kerala” during the COVID-19 emergency. When the surveyors enquired about the availability of food and water, 90% reported that they received an average of 16 kg of rice from the ration shop; (Normally a ration card holder is entitled to 15kg of rice per month) 90% reported the price of rice was free of cost.

ACCESS TO WATER

Regarding water supply, 37% of them get their water from a pipe in their home, 33% from a well in their home, and 21% from a public source outside of their house. About 28% of all respondents said they faced some difficulty with their water supply, and that applied similarly to all the sources mentioned.

Social distancing and lockdown were reported to have encouraged altruistic behavior among the respondents. Some respondents explained how they helped their neighbor (particularly the eledery and those that don’t have sufficient family support at home) to collect rice from the ration shop, purchase medicine and cook meals. Some respondents reported feelings of life slowing down since non-essential outings and socializing are not permitted in the lockdown.

SUBJECTIVE ASSESSMENTS

When asked about perceived differences in their lives, 47% reported having more free time than usual and 8% reported having less free time. About 56% reported feeling more stress and anxiety, whereas 33% reported feeling less stress and anxiety. Finally, 16% report feeling more work pressure, whereas 66% reported feeling less work pressure.

When asked to assess their relationship with their husband, 30% said life at home is easier than usual, and 13% says life is harder. Most said it’s the same (45%). Asked to describe her husband's mood, most reported no change (65%), 21% reported the mood to be more negative, and 11% more positive.

DOMESTIC SITUATION

The Asia-Pacific Gender in Humanitarian Action Working Group asserts the economic impacts of the 2013-2016 Ebola outbreak in Africa, placed women and youngsters at greater risk of exploitation and sexual violence. Therefore, we tried to know from women whether anyone in their community faced family conflict and abuse from an alcohol dependent spouse. Only 7% of women reported that they are aware of family clashes in their community, with 3% of men getting more drunk than usual, and 2% of men behaving inappropriately towards their wives (in the community).

HEALTH AND INFECTION INDICATORS

Only 3% report knowing of anyone in their community with fever or cough and 4% reported there is someone with breathing difficulty in the household. Respondents commonly mentioned that the “health of their family members is normal during this week. When we watch media reports via news or forwarded messages we become anxious about our health as well as the health of our community."

Respondents expressed their fear and concern to the interviewers over the uncertainty of the lockdown period.

STUDENT FEEDBACK

The students were appreciative of the opportunity to be proactively involved, and at the same time hone skills acquired in a classroom setting. Working in a dynamic situation, the students were exposed to a myriad of challenges. This further enhanced the real-world experience and gave them an opportunity to address these issues in real-time.

CONCLUSION

The economic and psychosocial impacts of the 2019–20 coronavirus pandemic has had far-reaching consequences on all segments of India’s population. Vulnerable groups, including people living below the poverty line, differently abled people, women, children, elderly and migrant workers in particular, have been negatively affected. Individuals without a stable income source, daily wage workers, displaced people or migrants are severely affected by the lockdown restrictions adopted by the government in the attempt to contain the spread of virus. Vulnerable groups are more severely affected due to the lack of job openings, lack of travel facilities to reach their home, non-receipt of wage from employers due to loss in business, etc.

Our results indicate that financial relief packages had not made their way to a majority of the intended beneficiaries (at the time the surveys were conducted), although the distribution of free rice seems to be working effectively.

The United Nations (World Economic Situation and Prospects: April 2020 Briefing) says the economic effect of COVID-19 pandemic will generally depend on two components: (1) the duration of restrictions on the movement of people and economic activities in major economies; and (2) the actual size and efficacy of financial responses to the crisis. If these two are not properly planned and executed by the authorities, the economic and psychosocial impact created by the COVID-19 pandemic will continue into the long term, which will in turn result in exascerbated social problems such as inequality, unemployment, violence and discrimination.

The researchers would like to acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of Bri. Karunyamritaji, Smt. Amrita Pushpa and Srividya Sheshadri for their valuable feedback, help and support.

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