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

Video recording from Day 2 of the Bottom-Up Resilience Webinar

Learning from Civil Society and Civic Resilience

What exactly can we learn from these different types of civil society responses during the pandemic? What do these cases tell us about social and community resilience from the bottom up? What do they reveal about the longstanding disparities in society? What can we look forward to in terms of sustaining these networks and momentum?

Contrasting responses

Besides the disproportionate impacts on the mainstream society and the marginalized communities, the contrasting responses from the state and the civil society groups present another parallel across the different geographical contexts. In Manila, Tessa Maria Guazon found the state’s bureaucratic response to daily emergencies like food supply, mass testing for the virus, and the provision of public transport to be, as usual, delayed and inadequate. As a result, communities turned to self-help and mutual aid as a way to address urgent needs, a pattern also found elsewhere.

“[A]s the pandemic spread, the government’s one-size-fits-all directives could not respond to the detailed needs of all sectors of society,” said Yang Bao and Shuyun Cao.

The experience in China offers a different scenario. In Wuhan, the local government did react relatively quickly but failed to account for the less privileged. Yang Bao and Shuyun Cao argued that “as the pandemic spread, the government’s one-size-fits-all directives could not respond to the detailed needs of all sectors of society.” It was in this context that the self-organized civil networks have emerged in response to the urgent needs of those who have not been helped.

Trust and empathy

As a discussant on the first day of the webinar, Kian Goh of the University of California, Los Angeles highlighted the presence of place-based and historically informed local experiences as illustrated by the speakers. Goh noted that many community self-help and mutual aid practices “really have to be built on trust and empathy […] developed among close-knit circles.”

“There was no money involved; transactions were just purely made on trust and generosity within the community Facebook group,” said Mateo-Babiano.

In the case of LuMo Road Rescue in Wuhan, Yang Bao found trust was already established and deeply rooted in the group, “making the rescue, their donation [drive], and mobilization of resources [go] quite smoothly.” Iderlina Mateo-Babiano also found community resilience to be underpinned by trust in the case of Life Cycles PH. She noted that many of the transactional activities, including the borrowing of bicycles, were based on trust and community spirit or Bayanihan. “There was no money involved; transactions were just purely made on trust and generosity within the community Facebook group,” said Mateo-Babiano.

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

Reciprocity and Scalability

As place-based and locally-specific actions, Kian Goh wondered about the potential of looking across scales to include different community groups and different levels of government, and if these efforts are bound to one place and one community. In other words, are these civil society responses scalable?

“It keeps these efforts going. Some of us may fall out because of fatigue but I think others will be interested to help,” said Tessa Maria Guazon.

In Manila, Tessa Maria Guazon found evidence of “a cycle of generative reciprocity” in the example of a chef who converted her restaurant kitchen into a community kitchen and came up with a set of guidelines for establishing community kitchens and for making them safe. A colleague from the university then translated the guidelines into Tagalog or Filipino so they can be widely circulated. “It keeps these efforts going. Some of us may fall out because of fatigue but I think others will be interested to help,” said Guazon.

Solidarity and collaboration

The answer to scalability perhaps already exists in the way that many of these groups and initiatives operate, through collaboration and acts of solidarity. In answering my own question about how organizations adapted to crises and how such adaptation can sustain in the long run, Iderlina Mateo-Babiano sees the sharing paradigm as key, particularly when “fueled by the ongoing advocacy and solidarity of like-minded individuals,” and “a common concern for social justice and human connection.”

“[A]s an organizer I always go back to solidarity as a solution,” said Michelle Wong.

Michelle Wong had a similar response, “as an organizer I always go back to solidarity as a solution.” For instance, the COVID-19 crisis has led ImpactHK to consider forming a network of homeless advocacy organizations in Hong Kong to address the problem effectively and to lobby the government. “At the end of the day, the government is the resourceful, powerful kind of machine that can do much more than a small organization like us,” said Wong.

Volunteers gathered to receive instructions at the beginning of a night-time street count in Tokyo prior to COVID-19. (Photo courtesy of ARCH)

Barriers to Civil Society Responses

With lockdowns and other extraordinary constraints during the COVID-19 pandemic, civil society responses have their share of challenges and difficulties as well.

Unlike domestic helpers who can be seen in large weekend gatherings like these at the Taipei Main Station, many other migrant workers are mostly invisible from the public. (Photo by Jeff Hou)

Implications and Lessons for Planning and Design Practices

“[…] what we have thought of as the right solution, the right public space, may not really be the right one for the users,” said Mateo-Babiano.

A key question on both days of the discussion concerns the implications and lessons of civic resilience for planning and design professionals, the main audience of the webinars. Iderlina Mateo-Babiano responded with a reflection on her training as a planner, “when I hear the stories […] I think that’s one of the learnings that as a planner we should take on.” “Sometimes we think that we know what are the lived experiences of those for whom we provide public spaces, but actually what we have thought of as the right solution, the right public space, may not really be the right one for the users,” said Mateo-Babiano.

> Return to Part 1

Acknowledgment

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.