These are difficult times. Fear, anxiety, and loneliness creep in on our attempts to maintain some sort of normalcy and routine. We have to plan to access critical resources, like food, and we worry about the availability of healthcare when we or our families might need it. Stops at the grocery store to “just pick up a few things,” everyday gatherings with friends, routine doctor’s appointments to refill prescriptions – so many of the activities we once took for granted are no longer feasible, or safe, to engage in. We are learning what it means to live a life of isolation and scarcity.
For residents living in the world’s rural last mile, this reality – new for many of us – is painfully familiar. Every rainy season, rivers and canyons flood and cut them off from critical resources – food markets, employment, education, and healthcare – for weeks at a time. A lack of infrastructure, such as bridges and all-weather roads, leaves them isolated, shackled by uncertainty and anxiety. The shifts in behavior that have challenged all of us in recent weeks are standard fare for people living in last-mile communities – they store more, invest less, and make decisions informed by a deeply-rooted understanding of scarcity and fear.
For those already experiencing isolation and extreme poverty, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic are going to hit hard. Imagine you and your family live in a last-mile community, and heavy rains have flooded the river that lies between you and the closest town, where both the market and health clinic are located. You’ve heard rumors of a new virus on the radio, but you don’t know much about it, other than that it is easily spread, and people who contract it are dying. You are running out of food, and need to visit the market. There is a window this week when the rain is scheduled to pause, and the height of the river may go down just enough for you to cross on foot, buy a few essentials to get you and your family through the next few weeks, and make it back before the rain picks up again. It is your best opportunity to make the journey, but the trip to the market will put you in close quarters with others from surrounding communities, and you are worried that this heightens your risk for contracting the virus. You have no choice but to take that risk, and you make the trip. You return home, where you and your family live, sleep, and work in close quarters.1
Three days later, your grandmother comes down with a fever and sore throat. The river is flooded, so the only route to the health clinic is a three-hour walk to the timber bridge miles away. You recruit two other community members to help you carry the sling bearing your grandmother to the health clinic. The journey is long, so you stop frequently to share the little water you have. When you arrive, the health clinic is overcrowded, and it appears that the nurses and doctor at the clinic are already stretched thin. You hesitate to leave your grandmother there, as you aren’t sure if you will be able to get back to visit her soon, or if she’ll be able to get the care she needs.2
Transport connectivity is critical in battling the spread of the COVID-19 virus. Learnings gathered from outbreaks of highly-contagious diseases, such as Ebola and Lassa Fever, show that access to health resources is key to prevention and treatment.3 For the world’s last-mile communities, roads and bridges ensure that community health workers can reach residents to share information, teach hygiene and distancing procedures, diagnose infection early, and deliver vaccines when they become available. They also offer a reliable route to a health clinic when emergency care is needed. As the COVID-19 virus has a higher rate of severe, life-threatening complications for vulnerable populations such as those living in the last mile (the malnourished, those with comorbidities, the elderly, etc.), this access can be, in a very literal sense, life-saving.4
Physical connectivity is also crucial for food security during times of social distancing. Smallholder farmers, such as those living in the last mile, provide the bulk of food consumed in low-income countries.5 Roads and bridges provide access to markets, cooperatives, and storage facilities, all crucial to keeping food systems running. They also ensure that rural residents are able to secure food and other goods for their families, as they do not have the privilege of home delivery, as many of us do.
On the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, transport connectivity will play a vital role in recovery. Roads and bridges are integral to improving the speed at which governments, aid organizations, and NGOs can mobilize to reach rural populations and ensure they have the supplies and resources they need to begin re-engaging in economic and social functions.6 Physical connectivity to goods and labor markets is also crucial for rural residents trying to rebuild – footbridges, and the access they provide, are proven to increase farm profits and afford rural residents alternative, off-farm wage-earning opportunities, which means that they earn more, store less crop for personal consumption, and re-invest in their farms, businesses, and communities.7 Also, transportation infrastructure provides connectivity to schools, churches, government facilities, and community centers, ensuring that when they reopen, rural residents will be able to attend, engage, and benefit from the restoration of services, activities, and collaboration.
Bridges to Prosperity is proud that the more than 300 footbridges we have constructed around the world are serving to connect last-mile communities in a time when connectivity has never been more valuable, and we are focusing efforts and resources on maintaining operational capacity and expertise so that we are able to mobilize quickly to construct additional connection when the situation allows. A gift made to B2P at this time is a tangible, transformative way to support these efforts, and to provide connection for last-mile communities in urgent need.
1. Mutsaka, Farai. “Coronavirus Lockdowns Are Choking Africa’s Food Supply.” TIME, 15 Apr, 2020, time.com/5821116/africa-coronavirus-food-supplies/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=coronavirus-brief&utm_content=20200415&xid=newsletter-coronavirus-brief. Accessed 18 Apr, 2020.
2. “Latin America’s Health Systems Brace for a Battering.” The Economist, 11 Apr, 2020, www.economist.com/the-americas/2020/04/11/latin-americas-health-systems-brace-for-a-battering. Accessed 18 Apr, 2020.
3. “Lassa Fever – Treatment.” World Health Organization, www.who.int/health-topics/lassa-fever/#tab=tab_1. Accessed 18 Apr, 2020.
Ilimi, Atsushi and Kulwinder Rao. “Transport Connectivity and Health Care Access: Evidence from Liberia.” Transport & ICT Global Practice – The World Bank Group, Apr 2018, elibrary.worldbank.org/doi/abs/10.1596/1813-9450-8413. Accessed 18 Apr, 2020.
4. “Vulnerable Populations.” World Health Organization, www.who.int/environmental_health_emergencies/vulnerable_groups/en/. Accessed 18 Apr, 2020.
5. “Rural Differentiation and Smallholder Development – Evaluation Synthesis.” International Fund for Agricultural Development, Sept 2013, www.ifad.org/documents/38714182/39720672/rural_es.pdf/7032034b-b20f-403e-8abc-0dbea2d4897f. Accessed 18 Apr, 2020.
6. Menzies III, John and Omar Helferich. “Humanitiarian Relief and Broken Supply Chains – Advancing Logistics Performance.” TR News, July-Aug 2013, pp 11-16, https://onlinepubs.trb.org/onlinepubs/trnews/trnews287.pdf. Accessed 18 Apr, 2020.
7. Brooks, Wyatt and Kevin Donovan. “Eliminating Uncertainty in Market Access: The Impact of New Bridges in Rural Nicaragua.” Econometrica (forthcoming). economics.yale.edu/sites/default/files/nicaraguabridges_web.pdf. Accessed 18 Apr, 2020.
Brooks, Wyatt and Kevin Donovan. “Bridging the gap: Reducing Rural Isolation with New Infrastructure.” VoxDev, 9 July, 2018, voxdev.org/topic/infrastructure-urbanisation/bridging-gap-reducing-rural-isolation-new-infrastructure. Accessed 18 Apr, 2020.