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Community care during the pandemic in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines

A community pantry in Manila. Photo by Karapatan Metro Manila, used with permission.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread disruption and poverty, but it also inspired many to organize campaigns aimed at supporting those in need. From community pantries in the Philippines to the White Flag movement in Malaysia and the “citizens helping citizens” initiative in Indonesia, this pandemic has spurred communities to mobilize and provide aid during this public health emergency.

These movements were all conceptualized in response to inadequate and slow governmental assistance in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Yet they also highlighted, that if governments would not properly perform their duties, ordinary citizens would step up to ease the burden of their fellow community members.

Amid a flurry of depressing pandemic stories, we were uplifted by these organic, inspirational stories of support that exemplify hope, solidarity, and community care.

Community pantries in the Philippines

In May 2021, Global Voices reported how a single community pantry in Quezon City in the Philippines’ National Capital Region sparked a nationwide movement that saw volunteers setting up pantries to provide food and other necessities to hungry citizens. The government said it monitored 6,700 pantries which offered assistance while communities were placed under COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.

Patreng Non, who organized a community pantry in April, talked about the relevance of this movement:

Minsan, maliit na hakbang lang pala ang kailangan para marating natin ang ating mga pangarap. Sa kaso ng Community Pantries sama-samang maliliit na hakbang ng mga pumipila, organizers, volunteers, patungo sa food security na naging movement hindi lang pang-pagkain, pati na din sa community building (nagkabati-bati pa nga daw ang mga magkakapitbahay) at naging din outlet na din para sa lungkot at uncertainty na dala ng pandemya. Nagkaroon ng community sa mga Community Pantries.

Sometimes, it only takes a small step to achieve our dreams. In the case of Community Pantries, these are collective small steps of those who are queuing for relief, organizers, and volunteers to promote food security; but it also became not just a movement to distribute food because it led to community building (even neighbors patched up their differences) and gave outlet during a time of misery and uncertainty. A community was built through the Community Pantries.

In another post on Facebook, Non asserted that unless the government recalibrates its militarized pandemic response, the pantries could not adequately address the newfound hunger and deprivation:

Maski anong gawin nating tulungan at pagsunod sa guidelines magiging cycle lang ang lockdowns hangga't hindi scientific ang approach natin sa Covid-19. Tama na yung pag enforce ng pananakot sa mga tao sana mag-focus na tayo sa expertise ng ating health workers at frontliners. Pakinggan at supportahan natin sila.

Our pantries and efforts to adhere to (COVID-19) guidelines will not end the cycle of lockdowns If our approach to the pandemic will remain unscientific. It’s time to stop terrorizing our people and instead focus on the expertise given by our health workers and frontliners. Let us listen to them and support them.

Indonesia: “citizens helping citizens”

Some researchers estimate that Indonesia's poverty rate has increased 12.4 percent during this pandemic, underscoring the need for expanded social welfare programs. However, due to a shrinking economy and loss of income from tourism, the Indonesian government has struggled to meet this increased demand for assistance. Luckily, in many parts of the country, community members have stepped up to fill the gap.

In March and June 2021, the nation went into unofficial “lockdowns” known as PPKM (Pemberlakuan Pembatasan Kegiatan Masyarakat — community activities restrictions enforcement), meaning all restaurants, shopping malls, and non-essential services were forced to restrict services or close. During this period, many citizens struggled to find sources of income and pay their bills — particularly vulnerable gig workers and workers in the informal sector.

The hashtags #wargabantuwarga (citizens helping citizens) and #Salingjaga (take care of each other) went viral earlier this year as citizens all over the nation stepped up to care for each other, using social media to arrange monetary, food, and supply donations. Some groups even found creative ways to support the community while also addressing deep-rooted societal issues, such as I Made Janur Yasa's Bali-based Plastic Exchange Program, which allows citizens to trade plastic for rice. The group describes itself as “A sustainability movement that empowers communities to change their waste behavior through dignity-based exchange systems that result in cleaner, healthier environments.” In recent years, Bali — one of the top tourist destinations in Southeast Asia — has become infamous for its widespread plastic pollution. Yasa envisioned the initiative as a way to simultaneously provide for impoverished communities while cleaning up the environment and preserving citizens’ pride and dignity.

Grassroots efforts have also been essential in helping to track and trace COVID-19 in Indonesia. In Bali, Jackie Pomeroy, an economist and data specialist who has lived in Indonesia for 15 years, created the Facebook page “Bali Covid-19 Update” and has been releasing daily information about COVID-19 infection rates, COVID deaths, COVID news, vaccination rates, vaccine locations, and data trends since April 7, 2020 — 559 consecutive days (as of publication). The page has over 41,000 members and has been a crucial source of information for many on the island. Alternative data tracking services have sprung up on other corners of the internet like KawalCovid19, a volunteer organization that releases daily statistics about Indonesia's COVID-19 cases to its nearly 140,000 Twitter followers.

Malaysia's White Flag Movement

In late June, a group of young Malaysians in Kuantan were devastated by the untimely death of a friend who had difficulties coping with the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. They launched a White Flag (Bendera Putih) campaign in their community which encourages residents to hang a white flag or cloth outside their house if they require food or financial aid.

It soon became a popular movement known as Kita jaga kita (we take care of us) which promotes this message:

Raise the white flag if you need help, there is no need to beg or feel ashamed.

Don’t take actions that may harm yourself and your loved ones.

The campaign garnered support from civic groups and local businesses which dispatched aid to houses where white flags had been posted.

Crowdsourcing websites and apps like kitajaga.co, Sambal SOS, and MyBendera became useful to locate households in need of assistance.

The campaign confirmed the widespread hunger, poverty, and public frustration in Malaysia caused by frequent COVID-19 lockdowns.

Serina Rahman of the Yusof Ishak Institute wrote about the importance of the White Flag campaign:

While some have described the #BenderaPutih campaign as the epitome of surrender and desperation, it is a clear indication of how Malaysians will take action to help each other when in need rather than wait for government assistance. Malaysia’s youth, especially, are proving how they can pave the way to make a real difference.

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