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COVID Support for Leprosy Communities: Bangladesh (ALO)

Through our grant programs, Sasakawa Health Foundation is working to realize a world free from all forms of suffering associated with leprosy, or Hansen’s disease.

In 2020, a year defined by the coronavirus pandemic, life became tougher for communities of persons affected by leprosy and their families. Therefore, in addition to our existing grant programs, we added a COVID support program based on 1) responding to direct needs, 2) advocacy with the government, and 3) actively disseminating information.

Our fifth report is from Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Around 160 million people live on 148,000 square kilometers of land, or an area equivalent to about 40% the size of Japan, which has a population of 126 million.

It achieved elimination of leprosy as a public health problem in 1998, but sees around 3,000 new cases annually and is one of the WHO’s 23 global priority countries for leprosy. Meanwhile, stigma and discrimination toward persons affected by leprosy and their families remains deep-rooted, and social initiatives in addition to medical actions are a necessary part of ongoing activities against the disease.

At a national leprosy conference held in December 2019, the government announced a “Zero Leprosy Initiative”—zero disability, zero discrimination and zero disease by 2030—and is currently aiming to eliminate leprosy at the divisional level.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Bangladesh in common with other countries introduced a variety of measures to prevent the virus from spreading, including lock-downs and restrictions on movement. Socially vulnerable groups such as persons affected by leprosy and persons with disabilities were hit hard, especially by the loss of income-generating work and by a deterioration in their physical condition as a result of being unable to visit clinics for treatment of ulcers and other ailments.

Against this backdrop, we provided COVID support from November 2020 to February 2021. The organization we assisted was Advancing Leprosy and disadvantaged peoples Opportunities Society (ALO), a national organization of persons affected by leprosy and disability, as well as of other disadvantaged peoples. It consists of about 17,000 members belonging to 89 organizations and 1,554 self-help groups (SHGs) and is active in 22 of Bangladesh’s 64 districts. ALO is supported locally by The Leprosy Mission Bangladesh (TLM-B).

Our support was designed to enable persons affected by leprosy—through their organizations and self-help groups (SHGs)—to take the lead role in overcoming the challenges posed by the pandemic and, in the process, strengthen their organizational capabilities.

1)Providing information, hygiene products

ALO, in cooperation with each of its branches, began by disseminating information about COVID-19 prevention and distributing soap and masks to 3,600 SHG members. Thus armed, members could now take steps to protect themselves and their families from infection.

ALO members distribute information on COVID-19, masks and other supplies SHG members.

2)Income generation support

A total of 110 persons affected by leprosy who used to make a living from small businesses but lost their source of income as a result of lockdowns were given income generation support. This enabled them to purchase vegetables, daily items and clothing fabric for resale, and use the profits received to fund the next round of purchases. Being able to reestablish a stable source of income gave them and their families renewed hope.

SHG members reopen their small businesses with financial support to help them through the coronavirus pandemic.

3)Implementing online medical care

Amid the pandemic, many persons affected by leprosy were unable to visit healthcare facilities because of restrictions on movement or because they were afraid of going out. In response, ALO teamed up with doctors and physiotherapists from TLM-B to launch a digital ulcer care service by mobile phone. ALO leaders visited the homes of people with leprosy complications, connected them by video call with healthcare staff and watched the relief on their faces as they were able to receive a checkup for the first time in a long time. Local newspaper reports featured this service as well as the support provided for income generation.

Online medical consultations were initiated amid restrictions on movement because of the pandemic.

As we hoped, it seems that the COVID support we provided not only helped persons affected by leprosy when they needed it but also helped to develop the organizational skills of their leaders and strengthen their organizations.

The COVID pandemic is not over, and ALO’s leaders are continuing their activities in different parts of the country in cooperation with other stakeholders and building on the experience gained through this project.