Alada Ghor: working with low-income communities to design a rapid response to COVID-19

A group of young architects in Bangladesh have worked alongside low-income communities to develop a practical, hands-on guidebook to help residents manage the impacts of the virus.

Emerald Upoma Baidya's picture Nazia Roushan's picture
Emerald Upoma Baidya and Nazia Roushan are architects and members of the Platform of Community Action and Architecture
30 July 2020
The transition to a predominantly urban world
A series of insights and interviews designed to share the experiences of community leaders, professionals, researchers and government from the global South
A group of people sitting in a circle

The young architects working on community mapping before the pandemic (Photo: copyright POCAA)

This series of blogs focusing on the transition to a predominantly urban world was planned before COVID-19. The devastating health and economic impact of the virus demands our attention and commitment to work together to overcome it. In this blog, four architects, representing the Platform of Community Action and Architecture (POCAA), describe their work with low-income communities in Bangladesh.

After the lockdown made physical visits impossible, POCAA kept in touch with friends in the settlements by phone, linking them to organisations providing food aid, relief and hygiene materials. Self-isolation and quarantine were critical but state support was inadequate – so the architects and community members developed guidelines for managing their own isolation spaces and caring for their own community members who became infected.

In the four months since the first COVID-19 infections were announced, the pandemic has hit Bangladesh hard. By July 8, 3,500-4,000 new infections and 40-65 deaths were being recorded every day.

Densely populated cities including Dhaka, Narayanganj and Chittagong, with huge migrant populations, have been the most affected. People living in these cities’ low-income settlements have been heavily impacted by the economic fallout from the lockdown and are the most vulnerable if the virus spreads in these areas.

In Dhaka, 6.5 million people live in crowded slums, with poor sanitation and insufficient basic services. It is all but impossible to maintain recommended practices of physical distancing and handwashing. When people do get sick, communities struggle to access formal healthcare and quarantine facilities to isolate and care for those infected.

For several years now, POCAA, a network of community architects in Dhaka and other cities, has been working with marginalised communities to develop low-cost, self-help solutions to housing and environmental problems. Close bonds have been forged between these young professionals and the communities.

After the lockdown, the big challenge emerging from our phone conversations was how to take care of those who might became infected or sick?  Accessing government hospitals or public quarantine and isolation facilities is not easy, so communities would have no option but to take care of their own virus-infected community members – quite a struggle in the crowded and often squalid conditions in these settlements. 

Seeking solutions by design

We began turning our phone conversations with community residents into mini-design workshops, and a collaborative design project was launched: to develop a set of guidelines for how communities could develop and manage their own isolation spaces and look after their own community members.

We called our initiative Alada Ghor, which means 'separate house' or 'separate room' in Bangla. The initiative started with a question:  how can people living in densely-populated low income neighbourhoods with few resources, safely isolate and look after their own community members when they get infected with COVID-19? 

As with so many issues POCAA had worked on with communities in the past, the best answers could be found in the communities themselves, where making do with less and innovating in situations of scarcity are the normal way of life. 

Input from across the community

We talked with many people in different low-income communities, who brought all kinds of ideas. As the process continued, others joined in the discussion: community builders, teenagers, architects, public health specialists, university students and other professionals.

During lockdown, and being confined to their houses, people were ready and available to take part in this collaborative process. Gradually, a set of clear solutions began to take shape. We acted as facilitators, looking for ways to draw on the people's ideas in drawings, plans, illustrations and text. 

To ensure the content was clear and easy-to-ready, regular feedback was taken from women, men and children in the communities as the booklet was being compiled.

a woman reads the blooklet

Checking the booklet for readability with community members (Photo: copyright POCAA)

A hands-on, practical guide

The Alada Ghor project sought to disseminate clear, practical design and management solutions to space-related problems that could be developed and managed by the community. 

Booklet coverTogether, we decided to put together all these ideas into an easy-to-read booklet (in Bangla and English) that included poems and illustrations, so communities can design, build and manage their own isolation spaces, to match their own particular circumstances without the need for any technical support.

The booklet is narrated by Lota and Pata – two curious children who live in a fictitious low-income urban community. They embark on a journey to learn about COVID-19, which leads them into conversations with their parents, grandparents, community leaders, builders, doctors and architects. They arrive at a set of practical, community-grown solutions to fight the virus.

The booklet presents designs for community-managed isolation spaces in three different community contexts:

  • Where people can access some land within or near their community for short-term use, to set up a temporary isolation space
  • Where accessing land isn't possible, but there is an unused or vacant building in the community (such as a school) that can be converted into a temporary isolation centre, and
  • Where neither land nor a building is available, the community can turn existing rooms within a house into isolation rooms.

The booklet describes the minimum spaces required: patient's area, anteroom, caregiver’s area and separate toilets for patients. It explains how each space functions and lists appropriate construction materials and possible costs. 

The booklet also provides a set of protocols (adapted from the guidelines of national and international health organisations) that communities should follow collectively and that patients using the isolation space, and their families and caregivers should follow.

Spreading the word

The booklet is now finished, and we are reaching out to friends and colleagues across the country to get it into the hands of residents of low-income communities. We are sending it to other parts of the world where it can be translated into local languages and contextualised.

Cartoons, with text in English and Bangla, suggest how to spend time during lockdown

An extract from the guidebook that suggests how to spend time during lockdown. Click on the image to expand it

A few communities and organisations in Bangladesh have already started working together to build isolation spaces, using the booklet as their guide. At POCAA, we will continue to provide technical support to communities and their support organisations, by phone and social media, for construction, maintenance and management of isolation centres. 

The Alada Ghor initiative has opened up a new way of supporting our community partners during COVID-19, when physical contact has been so limited. The project has reminded professionals like us of the power of ideas and what can be achieved when people’s ideas are listened to.

With thanks to Suhailey Farzana and Mahmuda Alam for their contributions to this blog.

About the author

Architects Emerald Upoma Baidya and Nazia Roushan are members of the Platform of Community Action and Architecture (POCAA) – for building professionals who work at grassroots level to create better living environments by co-creating spaces. The platform is used for exchanging knowledge to create a network of communities and professionals engaged in self-initiated action.

Emerald Upoma Baidya's picture Nazia Roushan's picture