a year ago

Community power and Covid 19: Lessons from Korail slum

Residents of Korail slum, one of the largest informal settlements in Dhaka, stand in queues to get Covid jabs at Polli BondhuShishu Kalyan Primary School in Dhaka city.
Residents of Korail slum, one of the largest informal settlements in Dhaka, stand in queues to get Covid jabs at Polli BondhuShishu Kalyan Primary School in Dhaka city. Photo : FE file photo by KAZ Sumon

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Corona was expected to ravage Bangladesh as its health delivery infrastructure to the vulnerable population is limited apart from being a "poor country", as per international indexes. Many international agencies and media predicted doom as Covid-19 began to swell. Donor reports made scary predictions about the scenario and feared dead bodies littering the streets of Dhaka if not Bangladesh.

Yet not only did Bangladesh's people survive, the dead on the streets were missing. Most expected "dead bodies" would be  from the urban poor. Yet it's the slums that fought back most robustly. Research conducted by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) shows that they displayed remarkable resilience and coping capacity in such difficult times.

Research says many/most communities and clusters didn't wait for official / governmental interventions to address Covid-19 issues in Bangladesh. They formed their own coping mechanisms to deal with the crisis. It points to the strength of communities that exist in parallel, overlapping spaces and function beyond the official systems of governance.

Just as it points out the limits of formal governance, it also shows the strength of community based governance, which is more organic in nature.


BIGD, the research affiliate of BRAC University and BRAC have been conducting studies on community based responses to COVID-19 for several years now. They say that although infections and deaths were reported and increasing in different parts of Bangladesh, very few cases were reported in the urban slums, considered high spreading zones or hotspots.

The medical issues are still being discussed but the situation of Dhaka's major slum shows that "in the context of indifference from the state, the slum dwellers themselves initiated several informal but robust interventions to tackle the pandemic."  The conclusion is that it shows the "power of community governance from below."

The study states that although the government was not so active, slum dwellers acted on their own. They resorted to both medical and non-medical measures including spiritual support to tackle the health crisis as soon as the epidemic began.

It's significant that the slums have a leadership structure that is motivated by personal - slum rent owners -and community interests. In fact the GOB, when it acted, worked in collaboration with them. This leadership is organic and outside the conventional governance frameworks of the official world. They responded first and were later joined by GO and NGOs.  The study says, "They-GO-NGO provided support remotely and it was the slum dwellers themselves who had the main control over the intervention efforts and the volunteers managed the distribution of the external reliefs."


A major motivation for both the home owners and dwellers was economics. Mass migration from the slum would hurt rental income and ability to work was important for survival of the slum dwellers. All interests converged to turn into a multi- dimensional crisis and response mechanism.

The concept of this response which happens in many poor countries has been described by some Western authors as "resigned activism". But that tries to fit in with ideas already held by scholars about how the poor and marginalized usually behave. It seems more judgmental than explanatory.

BIGD seems to have taken a much more inclusive attitude towards collective responses saying that, "What this study confirms is that slum dwellers are anything but ignorant, indifferent, or passive victims of the pandemic, as portrayed by the media. The study proves their agency, resistance, and activism."


During the post-Covid situation, international agencies began to map various responses to Covid and Bangladesh interested them a great deal as it was a great mega disaster that didn't happen. The story of Korail shows that it's a different story from global expectation as the responses were "mainly informal, local, and adaptive -- an interesting case study of collective agency and community governance from below.

Global North concepts of governance are basically formal in nature while "South" is largely informal. This creates a conceptual divide. Community governance is even more different and less known or understood.

Most academic tendency is to compare them with how formal government works and how it "exists to fill the gap of the absence of formal governance." This makes the formal governance and state system as the "standard" and social/informal governance as the "deviant".  The state's presence is considered normal while the BIGD study shows non-state organic structures are able to function as efficiently because they are not imposed but natural.

Lessons from the BIGD study series on the topic are very significant as they show that society's natural strength is greater than expected though ignored by experts of the Northern knowledge system. New lenses are needed to examine such a phenomenon which displays that the concept of people, community, neighbourhoods as governance units are valid indeed. BIGD's research series on the issue is laudable.


(This article draws upon the findings of the following paper: Ethnography of community governance: a case of Covid-19 response of an urban slum in Bangladesh. Shahaduz Zaman, Faruq Hossain  and Imran Matin) [email protected]



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