Civic Resilience and the COVID-19 Crisis (Part 1 of 2)

Cleaning workers in Hong Kong received masks from Fixing Hong Kong volunteers. (Photo courtesy of Fixing Hong Kong)
Video recording from Day 1 of the Bottom-Up Resilience Webinar

Pandemic Inequalities

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.

Surgical masks were often washed and reused in Hong Kong by cleaning workers and elderlies at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo courtesy of Fixing Hong Kong)

“[F]ears of contagion meant that employers were largely unwilling to give domestic workers their weekly time-off,” said Cecilia Chu and Marta 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.

Tokyo’s Sanya neighborhood has been home to a concentration of day laborers and homeless populations. (Photo by Jeff Hou)

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.

Volunteers handing out masks to cleaning workers in Tokwawan, one of the poorest areas in Hong Kong. (Photo courtesy of Fixing Hong Kong)
Migrant organizations in Hong Kong played a critical role in community self-help among the migrant workers during the COVID-19 crisis. (Photo by Jeff Hou)
The lobby space of one of the tourist hotels operated by YUI Associates. (Photo by Jeff Hou)

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.

Volunteers from Life Cycles PH together with the donated bicycles. (Courtesy of Life Cycles PH)


> Continue to Part 2


The Bottom-Up Resilience Webinar is the outcome of a partnership between Pacific Rim Community Design Network and the APRU Sustainable Cities and Landscapes Hub. The author is joined by Shu-Mei Huang and Elizabeth Maly in organizing and running the sessions. The event was hosted by APRU Plus, an online hub of information that provides member universities with access to webinars, knowledge exchange, and communications updates about the ongoing health crisis across the Asia Pacific. We are grateful to the support from Senior Director Christina Schoenleber and Senior Program Manager Tina Lin. Yekang Ko from the University of Oregon, the program director of the APRU Sustainable Cities and Landscapes Hub helped with forming the partnership. Ah Chong Leung and Abraham Lai helped us connect with organizations in Hong Kong. Elizabeth Maly performed extensive editing of the articles. The webinars also would not be possible without the participation of all the presenters and discussants.



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Jeff Hou

Jeff Hou

Bottom-up urbanism is my thing.