During the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, civil society responses including self-help and mutual aid have become critical to the survival of many individuals and communities, lending a lifeline to some of the most vulnerable populations in our society. In the Seattle area, the ground zero of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, citizen groups and community organizations mobilized to provide food delivery and relief for elderly residents. Makerspaces, architecture firms, and university labs shifted gear to produce Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. Artists volunteered and collaborated with neighborhood organizations to paint murals on boarded-up storefronts to support local businesses and deter vandalism.
While many of these efforts may appear to be ad-hoc and spontaneous, others also emerge from longstanding networks and relationships. Together, they represent the emergence of civic resilience — the ability of citizens and communities to cope with and adapt to social, economic, and environmental disturbances. Compared with the common association of resilience with infrastructure projects and scientific analyses, civic resilience suggests the agency and power of individuals and civil society groups in responding to urgent and longstanding challenges.
Seattle is far from the only city where such instances exist. Cases of community organizing for self-help and mutual support have also emerged elsewhere during the pandemic, including cities and communities in Asia. Through a two-part webinar titled Bottom-Up Resilience and hosted by APRU Plus in July 2020, a group of activists, organizers, and researchers across the region joined in a dialogue to share lessons and experiences from their ongoing work during the COVID-19 crisis.
The webinars set out to examine the following questions: How do communities and social groups self-organize to address challenges during the pandemic, in particular challenges facing the most vulnerable populations in our society? What do these cases have in common? What can we learn from these civil society responses for future planning? What are the roles of researchers, planning and design professionals, and institutions in strengthening community resilience?
This essay summarizes the findings and presents the key lesson learned in the hope of advancing the understanding and practices of mutual aid, community self-help, and civic resilience.
With lockdowns, travel restrictions, social distancing requirements, and economic slowdowns, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused enormously disruptive changes to societies around the world. As schools, streets, and other forms of public and private spaces shut down in one city after another, the patterns of daily lives that were once taken for granted had suddenly unraveled. While a large segment of society can afford or manage to work from home, however, others are not as fortunate. As the death toll under COVID-19 has shown, cities and communities have been impacted differently, with the less privileged ones suffering a greater blow.
Inequalities and the experiences of the marginalized and unprivileged were the main themes during the webinar with presenters sharing their first-hand accounts working with or learning from the homeless, migrant workers, and street vendors on the front line during the pandemic. In one case after another, we learned that a simple change in how urban spaces were managed could have a substantial impact on the populations that depended on them for their livelihood.
In Manila, for instance, Tessa Maria Guazon of the University of the Philippines Diliman reported on the experience of street vendors during the lockdown, sharing that “many of those who sold their goods on the streets had no earnings having lost touch with their loyal customers.” The street that once provided a “semblance of security” was no longer accessible. The restriction imposed on transportation during the lockdown also “put the marginalized at a greater disadvantage,” said Guazon.
Changes in mobility during the lockdowns had a disproportionate impact on different segments of the population. According to Iderlina Mateo-Babiano of the University of Melbourne, 80% of the Philippines population is largely dependent on public transport. Banning mass transit to prevent the spread of COVID-19 had a significant impact on those who rely on public transport. “The impact was felt hardest by the essential workers and frontline workers who still had to go to work but had limited mobility choices,” said Mateo-Babiano.
In Hong Kong, homeless individuals, or McRefugees, were locked out of their usual refuge as McDonald’s was closed for a month during the lockdown, according to Michelle Wong, former program manager of Impact HK, a charity organization serving the homeless in Hong Kong. For those who had to report to work, such as the street cleaners, long working hours meant that many did not have time to cue up for buying masks even if they could afford to buy them, said Bernard Lee of Fixing Hong Kong, a volunteer organization that organized donations and distribution of PPEs to street cleaners and those in need during the pandemic.
For migrant workers in Hong Kong, Cecilia Chu and Marta Catalán Eraso of the University of Hong Kong reported that “fears of contagion meant that employers were largely unwilling to give domestic workers their weekly time-off.” Specifically, they found 29% of the domestic workers have their days off refused. Foreign domestic workers were also not included in the almost HKD 300 billion government fund to assist industries and the public in Hong Kong. Many also do not have access to PPEs, according to Chu and Catalán Eraso.
The situation in Singapore is perhaps most telling in terms of the demographic disparities. According to Tan Beng Kiang of the National University of Singapore, 95% of local cases are migrant workers living in the dormitories. The number of COVID cases is significantly high “because of the high-density living in the sharing of common spaces,” said Tan.
Other seemingly simple or trivial changes could also have a significant impact on the less privileged. In Tokyo, according to Mago Yoshihira of YUI Associates, a social enterprise organization serving the homeless population in Sanya, during the pandemic people often eat at home and do not go out to drink (at bars or restaurants), resulting in a lot of household cans to collect. The price of cans went down as a result, with the price for one kilogram falling by almost 50% from 80–85 yen to 45 yen. This falling price presented a challenge for people who make a living by collecting cans.
Vulnerable populations during the pandemic include not only the homeless and migrants but also those with chronic illnesses. In Wuhan, the first epicenter of the COVID-19 outbreak, medical resources were squeezed in the city, and many patients with chronic illnesses had difficulties accessing medical care during the lockdown, according to members of the Dinghaiqiao Mutual Aid Society Yang Bao and Shuyun Cao who have been observing volunteer efforts in Chinese cities during the COVID-19 outbreak.
Many of the challenges facing marginalized populations have long existed before the pandemic. In Tokyo, chronically homeless people keep living on the street and refuse to receive social benefits, according to Mago Yoshihira. “One of the major reasons for them to refuse services is that they do not like to stay at the institutional facilities […] Usually the bunk beds are provided, or one room has to be shared with another person. There are also lots of restrictions […] it’s not a good environment,” said Yoshihira.
In Taiwan, where the local authority has successfully contained the outbreak of COVID-19, the social isolation and spatial segregation experienced by migrant workers during the pandemic was not new, according to Shu-Mei Huang, an Assistant Professor at the National Taiwan University. From an interview with a community worker, she learned that the migrant workers ”are actually better than anyone to live in isolation, and to maintain online, fragmented social interactions.”
Organized Civil Society Responses
It was in the context of disparities and inequalities faced by the vulnerable and marginalized populations that many of the self-help and mutual aid efforts emerged. At the webinars, it was interesting to hear about not only the range of efforts but also the organizations that undertook the initiatives. Specifically, it is important to note that many of the organizations existed long before the pandemic. Their efforts showed how they have responded and adapted to changing needs in the community, and how existing networks and relationships played critical roles during the crisis.
Starting with Manila, Tessa Maria Guazon shared the effort of her research team as part of the Southeast Asia Neighborhoods Network, a project that started in 2017. During the pandemic, the team shifted from research to supporting community partners who were mainly homeless women and itinerant vendors. Using social media, the team solicited donations and organized “survival packs” for distribution to community members. Each survival pack provides one family with a week’s supply of rice, cans of sardines and corned beef, powdered coffee and milk, sugar, bread, and fresh vegetables.
Multiple organizations from Hong Kong were featured in the webinars. Fixing Hong Kong is a volunteer group based in Tokwawan, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Hong Kong. Founded in 2015 after the Umbrella Movement, the group provides home repair services as a way to perform outreach to communities to promote democracy and community self-help. With the outbreak of COVID-19, the group shifted gear to organize donations and distribution of masks and hand sanitizers to those in need, particularly street cleaners. As of July, the group has received and distributed over 50,000 masks and several hundred liters of hand sanitizers, according to Bernard Lee.
ImpactHK is a charity organization focusing on serving the homeless in Hong Kong. With limited staff, the organization focuses on linking the homeless, volunteers, donors, and their own staff. ImpactHK already had a food distribution program that served about 30 people a day before the pandemic. During the COVID-19 crisis, the program expanded to serve 150 people a day. The group also distributed masks and hand sanitizers, although they found the homeless were more concerned with having a place to stay and addressing other more immediate survival needs, according to Wong.
For migrant workers in Hong Kong, many grassroots organizations and unions from the community of domestic workers have been active in providing extra support to those in need. According to Marta Catalán Eraso, these groups reached out to the community and gave away masks and other supplies donated by companies. They also provided moral, legal, and health support. The Indonesian migrant workers union even had an online meeting with Indonesian President Joko Widodo to discuss these issues. The first-ever global online rally of migrant domestic workers took place with more than 500 participants representing organizations from 39 countries, a testament to the power of the pre-existing networks among the migrant workers.
In Singapore, several existing organizations have stepped up during the crisis. According to Tan Beng Kiang, NGOs such as Alliance of Guest Workers Outreach delivered meals to migrant workers who are quarantined or under a stay home order. A Singapore choir group “Voices of Singapore” organized a virtual sing-along for migrant workers and kids to raise funds for migrant workers. During the lockdown, religious spaces opened their premises for the homeless, including Malaysians who commute to work in Singapore each day but were stranded overnight because of the sudden lockdown and border closure.
In Wuhan, the NGO Wuhan LGBT Center provided health counseling and medicine delivery for HIV patients. They also set up a mutual support WeChat group for people to borrow HIV medication in emergencies. According to a report by Jean Chong of OurRight Action International, “between January 26 until the end of lockdown on April 8, the Center delivered medicine to an average of 200 persons daily,” and “an estimated 14,000 persons received 130,000 bottles of medicine over the entire 74 days of lockdown.”
In the Wanhua District of Taipei, a historic district with a high concentration of poor and elderly populations, the dense network of existing social service organizations provided much-needed support for the area’s residents and businesses. With large public gatherings banned during the early part of the pandemic in Taiwan, the network of organizations successfully moved a market event online. The event typically held three times a year since 2016 has been important for supporting local businesses and social enterprises. The success of the online event encouraged the event partners to continue working together, according to Shu-Mei Huang.
In Tokyo, YUI Associates is a social enterprise that runs hostel-like hotels and a cafe in Sanya, a neighborhood historically known for a concentration of day laborers and homeless people. The organization operates two hotels for travelers and a third one to serve the homeless and provide them with a more comfortable and dignified environment. During the COVID-19 crisis, the group used one of its travelers’ hotels to accommodate chronically homeless individuals during the emergency declaration. It continues to provide food deliveries in the area for the homeless.
Besides formal organizations, informal social networks also played an important role during the crisis. In Manila, Tessa Maria Guazon found that the drives for food provision during the first few weeks of the city-wide lockdown have relied on social media networks. “There was a resurgence of community kitchens, and efforts were pooled between individuals and the many citizen groups that social media helped gather,” said Guazon.
In Hong Kong, Bernard Lee argued that many of these civil society responses during COVID-19 in Hong Kong have their roots in the protest movement in 2019. “Because of the protests, we are much better at organizing ourselves,” said Lee. Among the migrant workers in Hong Kong, there was also informal sharing of masks and sanitizers, as well as emotional support for those returning to their home countries under the lockdown, according to Marta Catalán Eraso.
Emerging Mutual Aid and Community Self-Help
Besides the existing networks and organizations, the recent crisis also saw the emergence of several new groups and self-organized initiatives. The formation of these efforts suggests new possibilities of community self-help and new forms of civic organizing. They also suggest the potential of civil society particularly in places where such a phenomenon was not expected or was not prominent historically.
In Singapore, a society arguably without a strong tradition of civic actions, there has been an outpouring of support for mutual aid and community self-help during the pandemic. A group of students from the National University of Singapore volunteered as translators for the migrant workers with a hospital, “They translated common questions the doctors would ask workers into voice recording and text. (in five languages — Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Myanmar, and Chinese). These were used by the doctors when they communicated with the workers,” said Tan Beng Kiang.
On the campus of the National University of Singapore, with a dormitory converted into a community recovery facility where migrant workers discharged from the hospital came to recover, students collected t-shirts and delivered them to the workers (as they could not go back to pick up their belongings) and offered financial literacy classes for the workers. At the Nanyang University of Technology, with the school in lockdown and the canteen closed, an undergraduate student who had just opened a noodle shop in the canteen decided to cook for hundreds of elderly citizens with donations from a crowdfunding campaign.
With students having to engage with home-based learning during the lockdown, a group of volunteers formed a group called Community Against COVID that repaired laptops for students in need so that they could continue learning at home. Other groups included “Masks Sewn with Love” that “sewed masks from their home for the homeless, migrant workers, and other vulnerable groups,” said Tan.
In Manila, Life Cycles PH was formed by a team of transport advocates, cyclists, and social media campaigners to provide bicycles to frontline workers in need of transport during the community quarantine. According to Iderlina Mateo-Babiano, through the donation of bikes and funds to purchase bicycles in bulk from suppliers, the group has delivered over 1,000 bikes to hospitals and institutions. Also, they have been able to match more than 400 bike lenders to borrowers in the community.
Mobility and transportation during the pandemic was a challenge not just in Manila. In Wuhan, known as China’s punk rock capital, music fans from two renowned live houses together with other participants formed a group called LuMo Road Rescue. The group coordinated and gave rides to medical workers during the city’s extraordinary lockdown. Starting with mobility support, the group has since branched out to coordinate donations and distribution of personal protection supplies to those in need, including local hospitals.
Wuhan was the site of many other self-help and mutual aid efforts, including those that serve the socially marginalized populations. According to Yang Bao and Shuyun Cao, volunteers formed a support group for pregnant women especially single mothers and same-sex partners. There were also pet owners who organized a support network to care for abandoned pets and those whose owners were missing or could not return to their apartments during the lockdown.
The emergence of these novel, self-organized initiatives illustrates the possibilities for community self-help and mutual aid even in societies with a tradition or system of top-down governance. It suggests that when called for by extraordinary circumstances, community groups and informal networks may leap into action. Yet it is also quite possible that these self-help efforts have long existed but were overshadowed by the state institutions and cultural biases that fail to recognize these survival mechanisms.