World Learning alumni around the globe are contributing to the COVID-19 response efforts. Many of them are using experience, knowledge, and resources they gained on their exchange program to stem the spread of the virus and support their local communities as they grapple with the impacts of the pandemic.
Tawhida Shiropa is the founder and CEO of Moner Bondhu, a social enterprise in Dhaka focused on mental healthcare. She was previously the features senior sub-editor for Prothom Alo, one of the largest daily newspapers in Bangladesh. In February 2020, she took part in an International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP) exchange focused on media responsibility in the age of disinformation.
When Shiropa returned home to Bangladesh after the program concluded, the COVID-19 outbreak had already started spreading fear in her community and around the globe. World Learning corresponded with Shiropa over email to ask her how the IVLP program has impacted her work, her current projects, and how she is involved in the response to the global pandemic.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tell us about your IVLP experience. What were some of the most memorable moments and highlights?
The best part of the IVLP program is building a platform where I had some amazing experiences with my IVLP colleagues. I will never forget all the conversations and arguments over many global issues that I had with them. Visiting all the host families during the trip was also memorable to me. I got to see and experience U.S. culture and its people very closely this time, which I consider a blessing.
My dinner experience with the Miller family in Pennsylvania will always be in my mind.* I had such a fun yet inspiring conversation with them, and I will cherish that memory. I also met a very good friend among my IVLP team members who I hope to stay in touch with. The whole melting pot culture of the IVLP program has impacted me and my thinking process.
I also presented about the work we do at Moner Bondhu at two universities during the program. I will never forget the appreciation and overwhelming support from the participants. I went to communications arts high school, where I was introduced to some students, who were very curious about mental health. I told them about my organization and they were so impressed that they connected with Moner Bondhu on social media to stay updated about our activities. Some of them also said that they would like to volunteer for us once they graduate high school.
* IVLP participants often have a Home Hospitality experience — a dinner hosted by an American family at their home, which helps improve participants’ understanding of U.S. culture.
What have you been working on since you returned from your program?
Since returning from IVLP, I have focused more on creative writing and thoughtful content development for the betterment of my community. The program expanded my understanding of this age of disinformation. I brought confidence, motivation, and lessons learned back to my country, as well as improved writing skills and an ability to look at issues from a different angle.
Unfortunately, the COVID-19 outbreak had already begun to alarmingly spread fear and frustration by the time I came back to work, not only in my country, but globally. I anticipated how fear and panic are deteriorating people’s resilience to fight the novel coronavirus. That is why I realized that globally the need for mental health and psychosocial support services during this crisis is a necessity. Moner Bondhu is calling out loudly for support and trying to implement dynamic activities to meet the high demand of counseling support and awareness programs.
Supported by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), we are offering 24/7 free tele-counseling and video-counseling to handle the mental stress due to this novel coronavirus situation. We are also publishing awareness posts, short videos, and live programs on Moner Bondhu Facebook page. We have hosted a webinar session with the U.S. Embassy in Dhaka on the necessity of mental healthcare during such a global crisis.
I also produce and develop content for Monher Bandu’s television show, Moner Kotha, Phoner Kotha, on Nagorik TV. The show will air every Saturday to talk about mental healthcare and healthcare guidelines during the novel coronavirus pandemic and advocate for mental healthcare services.
What impact has the pandemic had on you and your work?
Staying home during a lockdown is certainly very difficult. But it is also an opportunity to spend quality time with my family. During this time of unprecedented uncertainty, we are all concerned about the safety and well-being of our family members, friends, and colleagues. I try to stay strong and help people face the situation with awareness and bravery, not fear.
Apart from that, I am spending a great many hours at Moner Bondhu. The overall activities of the organization have increased many folds in order to fulfill the demand for counseling and mental healthcare support from my community. With the increasing number of clients, new collaborations and more people seeking psychosocial support, I am working very hard, sometimes more than 10 hours a day finishing the organizational activities.
How has your IVLP exchange impacted your work?
The program I participated in, “Media Responsibility in an Age of Disinformation”, could not have been more relevant. Right after returning from the U.S., the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in my country and as in all other countries, people started to feel the panic, stress, and anxiety of the situation. I immediately jumped to work with my organization to ensure that we provide correct information to not spread panic but, instead, to calm everyone down. We have continued to share important and accurate information, alongside publishing content to keep people’s spirits up during this time.
Thanks to an initiative by another IVLP alumna, the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh also promoted Moner Bondhu’s services on their official Facebook page. I also spoke about mental healthcare during COVID-19 on the monthly radio show produced by embassy, which was shared on the official IVLP Facebook page. I am truly grateful for this support and feel very appreciated and encouraged.