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Fear of uncertainty: an unexpected common ground

Adolescent girl at a recycling plant in Dhaka. Photo: Nathalie Bertrams/GAGE

Young researchers from the GAGE programme realise they are in the same boat as their adolescent peers from the urban slums of Dhaka – but they are not facing the same storm.

“If people are stuck in their home then they won’t be able to eat properly. Even missing a month’s work is a huge deal for us poor people. People like us have to go outside and work hard to earn money, right?  If this continues, we’ll just have to starve to death” (Female, age 19)  

Over the last two months, the pandemic has spread into Bangladesh and morphed to the community transmission stage, with the number of cases rising at an alarming rate.  COVID-19 spares no-one; it does not heed the socially constructed bindings that separate us by gender, status, age, education or wealth. However, even at the hands of this nondiscriminatory disease, the least privileged are the ones suffering the most.

As researchers, we have the privilege of working from home, living our lives as routinely as possible. We’re worried about the world and our loved ones, some facing the mental health issues that come with being stuck at home. However, people without a stable income or formal employment are at an unfair disadvantage that is far worse. For these vulnerable populations, they have to deal with tension and stress on a day-to-day basis. While we bemoan our boredom and ‘Instagram’ our work-from-home struggles, the working-class population can’t ‘afford’ to be bored or take their mental health into consideration.

In the narrow alleyways of the slums in Dhaka, basic utilities are rare. If some houses are lucky enough to have access to electricity, gas or water, the services are rarely uninterrupted. The idea of social distancing is almost laughable in these settlements, where families of six or eight are packed into single rooms. With several households sharing a common bathroom and kitchen, quarantine and isolation is an alien concept.

During the pandemic, adolescents in the GAGE programme are experiencing a different reality compared to their privileged peers. These adolescents are having to grow up far too soon, fast-forwarding through a critical phase of development. The impact of COVID-19 on their education and mental health is of great concern.

Our local team of researchers embarked on a journey to tackle this issue, focusing on adolescents facing the COVID-19 pandemic, located in low-income settlements in three areas of Dhaka – Rupnagar, Gazipur Sadar, and Mohammadpur. We had a list of 31 contacts from a baseline study conducted in 2018, from which we reconnected with 16 adolescents. This research was different for us, given the circumstances. However, we made the best out of the situation by utilising digital tools to coordinate remote working, using services such as Google Sheets, WhatsApp and Google Hangouts.

We thought we wouldn’t have much time during our phone interviews with each of the adolescents – leaving only a narrow window in which they could open up. However, to our surprise, most of the respondents were quite eager to talk, as they already had a rapport with the researchers from the previous baseline study. One challenge we did face during the interviews was finding a separate space devoid of external interruptions and noise, as ‘private space’ is not a “choice” but a luxury that most of the respondents could not afford. However, we tried to make the interviews as accommodating for the respondents as possible, keeping the questions simple and short.

The older adolescents we communicated with were quite well-spoken and aware of the COVID-19 pandemic. They knew that it was an infectious disease, and that they needed to maintain hygienic practices to prevent it. In contrast, the younger ones did not seem to understand the situation at all and were just following their parents’ instructions. One female adolescent (age 16) expressed her annoyance about not being able to go to school, “I don’t like staying at home all day because I can’t talk with any of my friends.  My neighbours are boys, so I cannot interact with them either since it is not accepted in our house. If I was attending school or coaching classes now, I would have fun and hangout with my friends. But the lockdown has made everything boring.”

Nearly all the respondents expressed their frustration and anxiety about the situation, worried about how their families would stay afloat in this economic crisis.  Being stuck at home for so long, not meeting their friends, is taking a toll on their mental health. They were also stressed about their families’ health, and felt quite helpless. A 15 year old boy told us, for example, how anxious he feels about his family members leaving the house. He said, “Every time my brothers come back from the bazaar, I panic. What if they catch the disease and it spreads to the family? They maintain hygiene, but they go out frequently and don’t always wash their hands every time. My mom and I keep telling them, but they say nothing will happen. I feel annoyed during these times, because they aren’t taking it seriously.”

Most of the respondents’ families were completely dependent on the income earned by their parents or siblings, which had come to a halt. Three of the adolescents in our sample had started to work after dropping out of school, but were compelled to stop due to the lockdown. This means that buying groceries, paying rent and getting by in the upcoming months is going to be very difficult. Although the government has been distributing aid, most of the respondents stated that help was yet to reach their households. One of them even shared concerns about corruption, referring to cases of local government representatives distributing relief only to their relatives.

Most of the respondents were getting information related to COVID-19 from the TV and through local “miking”, with few relying on online sources like Facebook and YouTube. Some of the adolescents stated that they did not have access to the internet at all, and not everyone in their class had a phone. Previously, school or extra classes were their only form of interaction with peers. In fact, none of the respondents were happy about schools being closed or exams being postponed. They are stressed about not being able to study, falling behind in their work, and performing poorly in their exams.

Most of the underprivileged adolescents had not been given any work at home and were trying to study by themselves. However, they all stated that they could not concentrate due to the pandemic, with thoughts of people dying and worries about the future. Moreover, most of the school-going adolescents do not have any support or guidance from their teachers. None of their family members are educated enough to help them with their studies, although their families are quite supportive.

Although we were offering a Tk.100 phone top-up to respondents as gratitude for giving us their time, we realised that simply getting the chance to open up about their anxieties was a much needed release for them. This was when we felt like the researchers and respondents were in the same boat, but fighting different storms. Perhaps, the acknowledgement that on some level, we shared the same hopelessness, despair, and fear in the face of a global disaster is what made the rapport building easy.

We are facing unprecedented times due to this pandemic. Researchers worldwide are conducting remote research, acquiring real time insights on the impact of the virus. As we continue our fight against COVID-19, we must always keep in mind the vulnerable adolescents who continue to bear the brunt of the crisis.