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Ireland's new Government must tackle inequalities made worse by COVID-19

We are calling for ambitious and collective action at home and overseas to address poverty, hunger and the climate crisis

The next Irish Government must prioritise tackling the glaring global inequalities that COVID-19 has further exposed as well as ending the injustices driving poverty, hunger and the climate crisis.

In Responding to New Global Realities: An Agenda for the new Irish Government and Oireachtas, we laid out an ambitious call for decisive and collective action to create a fairer and more sustainable world that leaves no-one behind, highlighting how the COVID-19 pandemic has proved our global interconnectedness and that things can be done differently.

As Ireland eases restrictions and begins to plan for the future, for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable the devastating impact of COVID-19 will continue long after the threat of the virus is gone. Responding to New Global Realities calls for leadership at an international level to address the economic fallout of COVID-19 that could push half a billion more people into poverty and decimate already inadequate social protection infrastructure and essential services like healthcare.

Our agenda outlines action needed by the next Irish Government across three main points:

  1. Resource Poor Countries' development needs in a changed world

  2. support system change in healthcare, food production and protection of the vulnerable

  3. build a more sustainable and just world

Globally

Jim Clarken, our Chief Executive, said, “Even in times of crisis, our leaders must not lose sight of their duty to uphold human rights and environmental protection. In many ways this pandemic is a dress rehearsal for the climate emergency. COVID-19 may well seem like a more imminent threat to our lives – but if we do not start to take serious action to address the climate crisis it will quickly pose as great and imminent a threat to our existence – as it already does for many of the communities we work with.

“There has never been a more important time to stand with the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. As we look to the future with hope, they brace themselves for the worst yet to come. Countries across the world are experiencing a major economic hit as governments shut down economies to prevent the spread of the disease. Those who rely on informal work have said this pandemic threatens to starve them before it makes them sick. Women and girls stand to be the hardest hit as they’re at the forefront of the informal work sector as well as on the frontlines of the healthcare profession and caring roles.

“This crisis also risks food value chains, causing immediate concerns for food security in developing countries with the UN warning of famines of “biblical proportions”. Protecting food security and implementing policies and support programmes that promote agricultural development must be supported, while taking into account the challenges of climate breakdown.

“Ireland has made a strong contribution to the international response to COVID-19 – in particular to the UN’s Global Humanitarian Response Plan, as well ongoing humanitarian support through Irish Aid. However, the scale and complexity of this crisis is unprecedented. We must seize this moment to repair the systems that made so many people vulnerable in the first place. This means putting equality at the centre of development in order to help the world recover from the crisis.”

Here at home

We are also calling for a number of measures in Ireland, including reform of the Irish care system. Care work (paid and unpaid) in Ireland and around the world is highly gendered and undervalued in terms of pay and recognition. Provision of care services - childcare, care for the elderly or people with special needs - by the Irish State is relatively low, leaving households to provide these services themselves or to source them from the market - if they can pay. This issue has become even more acute due to the COVID-19 crisis.

In addition, we call for priority to be given to supporting small businesses that have the least ability to cope with the crisis, saying that bailouts of big corporations should be conditional on measures to uphold the interests of workers, farmers and taxpayers and to build a sustainable future.

Recognising that Ireland has made some reforms to address corporate tax avoidance, we don't think they have gone far enough to address the scale of tax avoidance that is facilitated by Ireland’s current corporate tax regime.

In conclusion

Jim siad, “As in the last the financial crisis, the choices currently being made in the short-term at EU level will determine the policy choices open to the Irish Government in the aftermath of the pandemic. The new Irish Government should advocate for development of a monitoring mechanism to ensure any new resources allocated to tackle COVID-19 benefit the most vulnerable parts of the economy.

“The pandemic has forced us to reconsider what is essential to keeping our economies and societies functioning. It has also shown the incredible power of solidarity and collective action - we can rebuild a better world. Ireland now has an opportunity to fulfil its ambition to increase its international influence as set out in Global Ireland and A Better World.

“A better future must be guided by universality, collaboration, human rights, interconnectedness and on the principle of leaving no-one behind. The time is now for Ireland to cement its place as a world leader for progressive change.”

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My 2020 odyssey: To only buy pre-loved clothes

Before Christmas of this year I set a challenge for myself – to only buy second hand clothes and to try to stick at it for a year at least. The decisive moment came after a few fun daylong charity shop trawls with my two housemates. They had just discovered the joys of second hand shopping and together we would set out every second or third Saturday to see what we could find – they were mostly clothes missions, but on one occasion, we also happened upon a lush couch to replace our badly worn old one.

The three of us would descend on a circuit of shops – eager bees – and between us would come home with a hodgepodge of amazing finds, perfect fits and some really special pieces that sparked excitement and satisfaction. In turn, (as our wardrobes were growing at an insane rate) we would bag up our pre-loved items and bring them with us to donate to our local charity shops. Win, win – a local circular economy of sorts.

My favourite pieces include a Tommy Hilfiger jumper, that I am seriously missing now -  it is in lockdown in Dublin and I am in lockdown in Kildare. Hilfiger isn’t a brand I would usually shop for or check out, but this jumper stopped me in my tracks! I had to have it, and at the princely sum of €12 (bearing in mind it had barely been worn) I nearly skipped the whole way home.

Another fav success story was an amazing Gonzo zip up hoodie – when I saw it I immediately thought to myself...”who would get rid of this!?” I have gotten serious wear out of it and it has become a staple of my wardrobe – unfortunately this one is in lockdown in Wexford, so I’m not sure when we will meet again.

My last spotlight find was a nifty Supremebeing light summer jacket. Again, it was in perfect nick, fit like a glove and was a departure of sorts for me – it wasn’t really my usual colour choice. But therein lies the beauty of buying second hand – it tends to push you out of your comfort zone, makes you test new waters and expand your wardrobe horizons.

With lockdown and COVID-19 my challenge has been somewhat sidetracked. I am still trying to stick to a sustainable 2020 – I am knitting a baby blanket for a friends’ new baby girl instead of buying a gift and I have started growing veg and wild flower beds.

However, I can not wait, I mean seriously cannot wait, to get stuck back into second hand shopping when charity shops reopen. As many of you may be using your extra time to declutter at home – be it books, clothes or bric-a-brac – please be sure to keep them for your local charity shop when it reopens (Oxfam shops will be opening from 8th June!). Donations will be needed more than ever. But when you drop that bag or box off, also take a little meander through the shop, and see what hidden gems you can find – little gems that enable organisations like Oxfam to beat poverty and fight inequality across the world.

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'What will happen to us in Bangladesh?'

The hygiene kits include a month’s worth of supplies for a family: ten bars of soap, a kilo of detergent, eight reusable sanitary pads, 50 disposable masks, information, and a bucket with lid and tap for washing hands. Duke Ivn Amin/JAGO NARI

As COVID-19 spreads quietly through communities in Bangladesh, Oxfam partner JAGO NARI shifts into high gear.

What do you do when you live in extreme poverty and are ordered to shelter in place? You get frantic, and for good reason.

“People are in a panic,” says Duke Ivn Amin. “They have few food reserves, and since they are no longer allowed to go out and work, their supplies are quickly running out. The situation is very bad.”

Amin is the emergency response team leader for JAGO NARI, an Oxfam partner organisation in the Barguna district in southern Bangladesh.

“About ten of us are living at the JAGO NARI guest house so we can work out in the communities without putting our families at risk by going home at night,” he says. “It may be months before we see our families,” he adds.

JAGO NARI has been working in Barguna for more than 20 years, and Amin has been there from the start. So, while he’s missing his wife and 16-month-old son, he never seriously considered putting his own comfort and safety ahead of the Barguna communities. “We are at the front lines of this emergency,” he says. “We have to work.”

Fortunately, the government is starting distributions of rice, lentils, oil, and potatoes, which will make sheltering in place more realistic for many families, but without the knowledge and means to avoid transmission, they will remain acutely vulnerable.

“I feel very bad thinking about what’s coming,” says Amin.

“Poor families need everyone’s support now,” says Duke Ivn Amin, shown here with hand sanitizer made and distributed by JAGO NARI. Photo: JAGO NARI

Building on local strengths

JAGO NARI is a Bangladeshi development organisation that emphasises women’s rights and environmental protection. The group worked closely with Oxfam for three years to strengthen its understanding of humanitarian work, and to build its capacity as an organisation. Now, JAGO NARI is able not only to launch rapid emergency responses but also to raise funds for that work from a variety of sources, which is key to its survival.

As a local organisation, its staff has a finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the Barguna communities; when the coronavirus crisis emerged, JAGO NARI noticed that youth organisations were engaging immediately in the response.

“Youth are always at the front lines in an emergency. They move fast and contribute so much,” says Amin. “And in this emergency, they are much less vulnerable than elders.”

But the groups lacked experience, coordination, and proper safety protocols, so JAGO NARI invited them to help form a new organisation: the Coastal Youth Network. Now they work together to get the word out, and they keep safety—their own and that of the communities—front and centre.

JAGO NARI and the Coastal Youth Network have been disseminating public health information through leaflets and radio shows, and cars that blast the messages out of loudspeakers. They’ve been going door to door distributing face masks and leaflets; within the week—with support from Oxfam—they will also be distributing hygiene kits (see photo), and Oxfam will help them step up their public health awareness campaign in hopes of reaching 35,000 people.

Everyone needs to come forward

There is frustration in Amin’s voice as he talks about the catastrophe bearing down on his communities.

“The international community was late in waking up to this crisis,” he says, and his own country has also stumbled. “There are many workers who migrate from Bangladesh to other countries for jobs; they return by the thousands but are not quarantined when they arrive. Now, they are spread out all over the country.”

The number of confirmed cases is growing at a worrying rate – our future reality could be grim. Doubly so because no one outside Dhaka is likely to have access to proper medical care.

As the wealthy countries of the world stagger under the weight of the coronavirus emergency, he asks, “What will happen to us in Bangladesh?”

“This is the biggest crisis our country has faced since the war of liberation,” he says, with a death toll that could dwarf the famine of 1974 or the powerful cyclones that hammer this country each year.

But thinking back to the war gives him a measure of hope. “Back then,” he says, “everyone came forward to do what they could. That’s what we need now, and I think it will happen.”

Oxfam is mobilising to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and to save lives in vulnerable communities around the world. Working closely with our local partner organisations, we are delivering clean water, sanitation, and public health promotion programs; supporting food security; and getting cash to many of those in greatest need. In Bangladesh, Oxfam has helped many local organisations strengthen their capacity as humanitarian responders. We will work hand in hand with them in the COVID-19 response.

You can help Oxfam reduce the risk of COVID-19 to those most vulnerable.

Bangladesh: Helping each other is in our blood

Scene from Sunamganj District in 2017, when a flash flood submerged the region. Zobaidur Rahman/Oxfam

Author: Elizabeth Stevens

NEWS UPDATE: A cyclone bore down on Bangladesh just the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in the crowded refugee camps for the Rohingya – these coinciding crises create new challenges and even greater need. Read more.

When faced with the threat of flash floods, a cyclone, and COVID-19, an Oxfam partner in Bangladesh reached tens of thousands with life-saving messages, and more.

In Bangladesh, all eyes are on the water.

As the monsoon unfolds each year in the Meghalaya Hills of India to the north, the runoff rushes south, turning peaceful rivers into raging torrents that often overtop their banks and flood the countryside. In a bad year, flash floods destroy crops and sweep away houses, forcing the poorest families to start over again—from nothing.

Annual floods aren’t disasters in and of themselves. They are natural phenomena. It’s only when poverty and inequality become part of the equation that flooding becomes a crisis: the poorest people live in harm’s way because they can’t afford to live anywhere else.

Many of Bangladesh’s poorest live in the low-lying northeastern district of Sunamganj, where vast wetlands, or haors, dominate the landscape in the rainy season. Here, the fortunes of communities rise and fall with those of the rice crop—which in turn depends on the right amount of water arriving at the right moment of the year. Most people work as tenant farmers or day labourers; one way or another, all are dependent on the harvest to feed their families.

“Every day they sell their labour, and with the money they earn they buy that day’s essentials,” says Mohammed Seraj Islam. “Even before the floods, they are penniless.” Islam is the director of Efforts for Rural Advancement (ERA), an Oxfam partner in Bangladesh.

When flash floods strike, he says, the water comes suddenly. Families make what is often a dangerous journey from their flooded homes to informal shelters on higher ground, but the conditions there are often grim. Drinking water is usually contaminated, and crossing the turbulent water to reach health care providers is not an option. Women and girls may not have safe access to latrines, and may lack privacy for activities like breastfeeding. And there may be nothing to eat but rice. “You just eat to survive,” says Islam. “To stave off your hunger.”

When the water recedes, families that have lost their crops and incomes must sell their livestock and whatever else they can and migrate to find temporary work. But, as Islam says, when they reach Dhaka, employers often sense their desperation and offer terrible compensation.

Preparedness and inspiration

Knowing when and if floods are expected can reduce some of the risks these communities face. Each year, a multi-country network monitors the river flows, issuing warnings if floods are likely. In Sunamganj, ERA makes sure those warnings go the last mile. By late April of 2020, the Bangladeshi government knew flash floods were imminent and was urging an early harvest; ERA and its team of 500 volunteers—linking up with local religious leaders and community organisations—saw to it that the message reached the district’s far-flung communities.

At the time of this writing, ERA was poised to respond to the floods by deploying their contingency stocks, which include soap and detergent, sanitary napkins, antiseptic, oral rehydration salts, megaphones, and plastic buckets, as well as solar lights to make shelter life safer for women and girls. With enough funding, ERA also plans to distribute cash to many of the most vulnerable families—with a particular focus on women—so they can purchase food and other essentials.

ERA is one of 56 Bangladeshi organisations that Oxfam has supported through a three-year program aimed at strengthening their ability to carry out and lead humanitarian work. ERA staff learned how to transfer cash to hard-hit families, and how to launch emergency water and sanitation projects, for example, and now the organisation forms a crucial link between struggling communities of Sunamganj and disaster aid. “Now we are able to respond efficiently,” says Islam.

Disaster upon disaster

When the floods arrive, people take to the high ground and gather in shelters, but during this pandemic, a crowded shelter could be a very dangerous place to be. The cyclone season is also upon the region – with Cyclone Amphan making landfall just last week - but the cyclone shelters that dot the landscape of Bangladesh now look more than anything like future breeding grounds for the virus.

And the record-breaking outbreak of dengue that left hospitals overflowing in 2019? Many fear a recurrence, but it’s hard to imagine how any country could handle COVID-19 on top of such a health crisis. The scary truth is that a series of disasters is almost certain to strike Bangladesh in the coming weeks and months, and people seeking respite from them may put themselves squarely in the path of COVID-19.

ERA is doubling down to protect lives. It has added new elements to its planned flood response, such as delivering food to households where family members may be sick with COVID-19. And volunteers are disseminating messages about how to stay safe in the face of the disease—hoping soon to reach 55,000 people in the district.

But in Sunamganj and around the country, nothing short of a massive national preparedness and response effort—with international support—will keep the virus in check while enabling poor families to survive the shutdown. With income from jobs, day labour, and remittances from abroad slowed to a trickle, poor communities must now depend on the relief efforts of a government that is itself reeling from the effects of the pandemic.

“People confined to their homes are unable to meet their basic needs,” says Oxfam country director Dipankar Datta. “And now they are facing a host of additional crises.” In the short term, they urgently need access to soap and water, and cash to buy essentials like food and medicines—and the organisations that deliver aid need support to do their work. But catastrophes like this don’t just happen naturally, says Datta, and meeting the immediate needs is only part of the picture. “Inequality means some people are born into safety while others must fight for their lives from day one,” he says. “The real disaster here is poverty.”

For poor communities in Bangladesh, the near future looks bleak, but Islam, who was born and raised in Sunamganj, takes the long view.

“The people of this district have been fighting disasters for thousands of years, and we are still here. Forty or fifty years ago in big emergencies, when we had even less government support and worse communications, villagers organised themselves to deliver food to people in remote areas,” he says. “We will be able to face these challenges. We have strength and unity, and we know we are fighters. Helping each other is in our blood.”

In Bangladesh, Oxfam and 23 partner organisations have stepped up work on helping the poorest communities gain access to clean water and sanitation facilities, and the materials and information they need to protect their health through safe hygiene. The crowded camps for Rohingya refugees are particularly vulnerable to the spread of COVID-19; Oxfam and partners are providing water, sanitation, and hygiene support to 173,000 camp residents and 9,000 people in the surrounding communities. With enough funding, we also aim to deliver cash to 100,000 families, enabling them to buy food and other essentials from local businesses that are also struggling in this crisis.

Your donation today can help slow the spread of COVID-19. Our teams are scaling up this work globally with the support of people like you.

This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.

Together, we can save lives.

A Kenyan mother’s solitary battle with hunger and COVID- 19

Blog post by Blandina Ijecha Bobson Oxfam Great Britain

Life before COVID-19 was good, according to 38-year-old mother Beatrice Achungo Mbendo.

Beatrice is a single mother with four children aged between two and 13 years old, and she is five months pregnant with her fifth child. She lives in Kangemi, one of the informal settlements in Nairobi. She arrived in 2007- the same year she started engaging in paid domestic work to earn a living. Beatrice is what’s known as a “stone lady”- a name used to describes women - mostly from the informal settlements - who sit on stones in leafy suburbs of Nairobi and wait for middle-class citizens to offer them casual domestic jobs- a trade Beatrice has used to provide education, shelter, food and healthcare for her family since 2007.

Beatrice’s’ husband was employed when they met in 2007 but lost his job after two years. He then struggled to maintain a steady stream of informal jobs in the construction industry until the couple eventually separated.

“My husband left me five months ago after we found out I was two weeks pregnant. He wasn’t happy about it. I have tried to look for him, but nobody knows where he is, including his family”.

“Stone Ladies” left out in the cold

“Even if we couldn’t afford a good diet, we had three meals a day.” She had four regular clients from whom she earned at least KES 3500 (or about 33 USD) weekly. She would spend the money to meet her family’s basic needs and save some of the money for rent.

“Now things are really bad, we even miss breakfast in the morning. My children would eat something small during lunch and wait for me with the hope that I will come back with something in the evening. If I don’t come back with anything, we sleep hungry. Things are really bad. I am single parent, in my condition with nothing and no one to turn to.”

One time her family of five went for two days without food. She was so distraught that she left her house in tears to look for something to eat. “God heard my cries. One employer brought us 2 kgs of maize flour, sugar and cooking oil which got me through for a few days.”

As governments worldwide are fighting tooth and nail against COVID-19, domestic workers like Beatrice are spending sleepless nights worrying about where their family’s next meal will come from. The pandemic has dealt a huge blow to domestic workers as their employers have taken all necessary measures to keep their families safe, including letting go domestic workers that managed their homes before COVID-19 struck.

Beatrice says that her life changed the minute the government announced the first confirmed COVID-19 case.

“All my employers called me and cancelled on me. They told me to wait until COVID-19 has been contained then they will call me for work. It’s been two months since I last went to anyone’s house to do laundry and clean.”

Her landlord hasn’t spared her either. He has been calling her to ask for the two months’ rent she already owes.

“I explained to him that I don’t have any work. Every morning I go to the waiting place hoping to get something but nothing. There are so many of us waiting and hoping to get work.”

She openly admits that she prioritises any money she gets for feeding her children. Rent is currently not a priority over their survival. If the worst comes to the worst, she is ready to sleep in a ditch with her children as long as they have food.

Unemployed caregivers ‘collateral damage’ in GoK fight against Covid-19

Beatrice explained that because of COVID-19, the local administration and the police have been chasing them and asking them to go and stay at home until the disease is contained.

“But we can’t, we have widows here, you have single parents like me and even those who have spouses, their spouses have lost their jobs. There’s no way we can stay at home. The only thing that makes us come here every day even when the police chase us is the kids. When they chase us, we just go into hiding and come back. We just hope to get even a kilogram of maize flour per day.”

Beatrice says she diligently practices all the measures endorsed by the government to protect her family. Every morning when she leaves her house, she reminds her children to play in the house or just outside the door. When she gets to the waiting place, she doesn’t shake anyone’s hands, tries to maintain social distance and has a mask to cover her mouth and nose.

“When I buy the piece of soap for washing clothes, whatever remains I tell my children to use it to wash their hands. I have taught my children the importance of washing hands and they have put that into practice. When they started talking about COVID-19, I was working for a Doctor. His wife gave me a mask. It’s a disposable mask, but I wash it when I get home and hang it to dry - I can’t afford to buy a mask every day.”

Even as she and the other “stone ladies” undertake the preventive measures, Beatrice says none of them knows anyone who has been taken ill. They are just surprised how a disease that neither of them has suffered from has changed everything. The face of COVID-19 for them is joblessness and hunger.

The government stimulus package has not benefited her even though she was among the people who were registered to benefit. She highlighted that she has heard from her neighbours that some people had received food aid (2kgs of beans, 3 packets of maize flour, 2kgs of sugar and 1 litre of cooking oil), and some had received KES 2000 on their mobile phones. She feels the targeting and distribution wasn’t done in a transparent and accountable manner. She also hasn’t felt the benefit of the reduction in taxes.

“Even if they reduced taxes on food, if you are not working how does that benefit you? You have to work to get money to go and buy food to benefit from the tax reductions.”

An uncertain future for six

Given a chance, Beatrice would like to tell the government that:

“We have COVID-19 in the country and everyone wants it contained. The president can lock the county for two months but before that, he should ensure that they conduct an exercise similar to census and list all the households with vulnerable women like me, then give us food aid enough to last us two months. We will lock ourselves and stay with our children at home for two months until the disease is contained. But if they can’t do this, they should just let us work.”

For now, Beatrice has no plans for the future on how to cope with the impact of COVID-19.

“I just sit by myself and tell God, I have nothing. I have no plans. If I don’t get anything from well-wishers, I won’t hide; my kids and I will sleep hungry. If this continues like this, the only thing left is death. I feel like my life has hit rock bottom.”

This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.

Together, we can save lives.

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