Taking time to do it the right way – how COVID-19 is changing our work in Myanmar

A lot has changed since my last blog post, shared as the real scale of COVID-19’s impact on our lives was just beginning to come into focus in the US and Myanmar.

By mid-April our partner villages in Myanmar were still facing deep uncertainty about the risks they faced and the challenges created by how government and society reacted to the virus. The development plans villages made with Shanta at the end of 2019 were confronted by a vastly different context than anything we could have imagined.

But before we knew it, villagers and our local staff swung into action to protect each other and do what could be done to see that planned and new work went ahead safely and with as little disruption as possible. Villages quickly acted to resurrect local quarantine and social distancing procedures used when SARS and MERS threatened their communities over a decade ago. Staff made sure masks and sanitizer were readily available and tightened their travel and increased communication with villages to stay on top of ongoing activity while keeping themselves and village partners safe. Together the staff and villagers mapped out alternative approaches for each program, adapting as many as possible to keep them on track but putting anything that could not be done safely temporarily on hold.

Going to the village for monitoring projects and wearing mask
                 Going to the village for monitoring projects and a wearing protective mask.

Following our “do no harm” policy, our teams on the ground in Pauk, Taunggyi, and Pin Laung Townships are working with our 24 partner villages to ensure the 9,300+ villagers they support are able to keep village development on track. Seasonally sensitive projects such as chili farming, pig farming, and organic fertilizer production were the first to be adapted. These are moving ahead with small group demonstration sessions or one-on-one coaching and follow-up by our project officers or village committee members. Transparency meetings, a core component of our guiding principles to ensure all villagers have access to full project information, are being done by loudspeaker and public poster-board displays, with villagers invited to submit comment and questions publically or directly to project committee members or our staff while maintaining social distancing. This has been particularly important for Community Bank projects, as a vital source of credit for villagers and development funds for the village as a whole. Infrastructure projects that can be done with smaller teams or adequate social distancing have gone ahead with some delays after time was taken to think through the safety protocols together.

Things have settled down into a ‘new normal’ as our colleagues in Myanmar like to call it. Our COVID-19 specific programming has begun in earnest, with community based health education, and provision of materials and advice to stimulate local public health solutions such as disinfection and handwashing stations. And the lessons learned by our staff and villages about how working safer together can be improved has led them to resume ‘softer’ activities such as Women’s Discussion Groups, establishing new Scholarship Funds, and expanding the Community Loan Fund program. Project planning now includes a safety protocol for each activity to ensure that both staff, project committee members, and project participants know how to stay safe and what safety standards they can expect from each other. None of our partner villages are completely closed to outsiders as they were in the early days, but meeting sizes are small and no overnight stays are permitted. This means that some of our work is taking longer than planned, but that’s because we are committed to doing it the right way. We’re taking extra time where it is needed to sensitize communities to new project concepts or planned changes to make sure they are understood and agreed by all before moving ahead. We’re making sure the means and ways to stay safe are in place and understood before starting any activity. And we’re keeping up the spirit and practice of good partnership by continually listening to each other and working to understand each other’s aspirations and worries.

Bridge construction has started again now that safe practices can be used
                Bridge construction has started again now that safe practices can be used.

While we are happy to report that there have been no confirmed cases of corona virus in these communities, economic concerns seem to be growing for all families. This time of year, before the July rainy season, is always one of the leanest that our partner villages face. It’s now coupled with a high level of uncertainty about income opportunities from farming, day labor, and economic migration. Farmers are worried they may not be able to sell their crops to repay loans and prepare for the next season, or to access inputs for new crops due to potentially limited market availability of seeds or fertilizer.

The poorest villagers, dependent on day labor or economic migration opportunities which have slowed to a crawl, are worried about having enough to eat in another month or two if things continue at this pace.

One immediate action taken by many villages to mitigate these uncertainties has been to collect only interest owed to the Community Loan Fund and to extended principle repayment to September. Our staff and partner villages are working together to map and analyse the risks households face, and to plan new or adapted projects to provide immediate relief while addressing root causes in a way that will reinforce sustainable community-led solutions so they are more resilient in the future. I look forward to updating you on our next steps as we work side-by-side with our village partners to strengthen the ability of these at-risk communities to withstand the negative impact of the global pandemic.

-Dan Osnato, Shanta Program Manager