Coronavirus Outbreak: With guidance from govt, RWAs can play a crucial role in deploying community testing, overseeing quarantine across country

There are simply not enough personnel to conduct tests at scale and often, communities are unwilling to come forward for testing due to stigma. This is where Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) can play a crucial role.

Vaidehi Tandel and Prakhar Misra May 08, 2020 08:29:46 IST
Coronavirus Outbreak: With guidance from govt, RWAs can play a crucial role in deploying community testing, overseeing quarantine across country

As governments prepare to open up economic activity across India, they need to determine the areas where lockdowns can be relaxed and where they need to be extended. This depends on a single metric: the extent of the spread of the COVID outbreak. There is only one way to measure it: through community testing.

Government facilities will have to prepare to increase capacity to conduct a lot more tests and conduct them frequently to monitor the situation in the aftermath of lifting the lockdown. Given limited resources, governments will also have to prioritise which locations are to be tested.

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Representational image. PTI

From what we have seen of this outbreak so far, we know that the spread is uneven and many of the hotspots have emerged in the big metros. While contact tracing may be used in areas where there are few infected cases, areas with larger outbreaks will require more community testing to monitor prevalence.

Effective implementation of community testing requires random sampling of households, personnel, cooperation from residents, and adequate logistical support for conducting tests. While random sampling can be done easily with the help of voter lists and electoral rolls, governments may face hurdles in these other areas.

There are simply not enough personnel to conduct tests at scale and often, communities are unwilling to come forward for testing due to stigma. This is where Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) can play a crucial role.

RWAs are legal entities comprising members who are residents of housing societies in localities. These are registered under the Societies Registration Act of 1860 and are entrusted with responsibilities such as managing general affairs, maintenance of their localities, and ensuring “healthy living”.

Many of the tier-1 and tier-2 cities have active RWAs, some of which have been used to assist in the COVID-19 epidemic. There is at least one case of a district magistrate who created a WhatsApp group with RWA members to assist with overseeing implementation of quarantine.

In the early days of the infection spread, RWAs were also involved in documenting travel histories of their members and alerting authorities. In areas declared as containment zones, RWAs have monitored families under quarantine, and enforced strict lockdown and movement of persons in and out of localities. There may be more such instances that have not been reported but there is enough anecdotal evidence to show that RWAs are playing an important role in fighting the crisis.

Besides monitoring, RWAs have mobilised for other types of assistance such as organising essential retail supplies for members. Retail and online grocery companies are channeling bulk deliveries of combined orders through RWAs.

RWAs have even attempted to cater to residents outside their localities. In Delhi, for instance, a dairy store located inside a housing society was made accessible to those waiting at the society gate. This involvement in a range of activities has happened without any external directive informing any of these actions.

At times, their involvement has bordered on vigilantism as rules are made on the fly, without basis in science or respecting norms of privacy, and government orders are implemented in a ham-handed fashion. This tendency needs to be curtailed through regular and clear communication from local authorities with RWAs about their duties, responsibilites, and remit.

On the whole, given their ability to mobilise voluntarily, RWAs can be an invaluable resource in deploying community testing in cities, where the outbreak has been most severe. Specifically, they can help organise logistical support for random testing and ensure cooperation from members as they have community sanction, a legal mandate and have so far shown willingness to contribute.

A possible drawback, however, could be allegations of bias in selecting households for testing. This can be easily addressed either by assigning the process of random sampling to others and handing over the lists of members to the RWAs directly or by holding a randomised lottery of flat numbers to select for getting tested.

To further standardise the process of testing, RWAs will need to be given a standard operating procedure with an emphasis on ensuring no discrimination against those who may be sampled or test positive. In the early stages of the crisis, a few RWAs made public contact details of 722 residents in south Delhi who had travel histories, violating standards of maintaining privacy. Such cases should be kept in mind while devising protocols.

Another potential problem could be lack of knowledge around testing itself. The government can map the RWAs with respective local hospitals who can then oversee the basic distribution of PPE kits, setting up of testing centres etc. RWAs can then coordinate with the testers to help provide necessary support.

While individual families may not have any incentive to volunteer to test if selected, given the fear of isolation or stigma, RWAs have an incentive to find positive cases to be able to better protect the rest of the members. Given their ties to the communities, they can speak to members and families for ensuring cooperation.

If there are instances of positive cases, RWAs can help monitor that self-isolation and quarantine is being followed, as they have been doing thus far. They have the de facto authority to make decisions that may not appeal to individuals, but are accepted by the community as a whole.

Therefore, empowering RWAs to help with testing can be a crucial step in monitoring the conditions for determining when to lift restrictions on mobility.

Vaidehi Tandel is junior Fellow and Prakhar Misra is senior associate at IDFC Institute

Updated Date:

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