The recent surge in COVID-19 in India has had a terrible impact on rural areas. Agricultural workers, small and marginal farmers and their communities are faced with a neglected, under-funded and under-staffed rural health care infrastructure, and as a result suffer higher rates of illness and fatalities. Due to the role of union leaders and organizers as community leaders taking charge in this crisis and trying to ensure access to both health care and food security, they need to be physically present to represent, petition and demand on behalf of their members and their families. As is so common in villages and rural areas, access to livelihood programs, food rights and social protection must be negotiated with the authorities and the role of union leaders and organizers is vital. At the same time, this puts them on frontline in this pandemic, taking much greater risk.

As leaders they also play a vital role in promoting wearing masks, washing hands and distancing to slow the spread, and to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

In response, the IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Organization is supporting women leaders and organizers in villages in several states in India. Through the IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Solidarity Fund and the special contribution of the United Workers Union (UWU) in Australia, we are able to support thousands of women leaders and organizers in rural areas as frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19.

The IUF-affiliated Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) through their VimoSEWA co-operative provides COVID-19 health insurance for SEWA women organizers and leaders who are involved in COVID-19 safety awareness, livelihood protection and vaccine awareness. Under this scheme anyone who tests positive for COVID-19 receives immediate cash assistance. This helps to meet basic needs during quarantine, including food and medicine, and is crucial for them being able to support their members.

There is an urgent need to get members and their communities vaccinated as soon as vaccines are available.  SEWA Madhya Pradesh is organizing COVID-19 safety and vaccine awareness programs to reach out to rural communities in 62 villages in three districts through mobile vans to give information on COVID-19 testing and vaccines that will benefit around 10,000 people. Since SEWA Madhya Pradesh is trusted in these villages, this campaign is proving effective against the fake news that was causing vaccine hesitancy or anti-vaccine sentiment. There is dramatic increase in the number of people in these villages signing up for vaccination.

Women in villages are often unable to reach vaccination centers due to the lack of safe public transport or dependence on male relatives for transport (where vaccine hesitancy among men effectively denies women access to vaccination). In response SEWA is also organizing free & safe transportation to vaccination centres. Initially this transportation will be provided for 1,600 women. By providing free & safe transportation, an important obstacle is removed and allows union leaders and organizers to finally break through vaccine hesitancy in rural areas.