If 2020 has felt like a series of punches including big knockout ones, you are not alone. It has become a cliché to say that COVID-19 has transformed the world we live in. At the same time, if you are reading this, you are likely someone with at least the level of privileges that has allowed you to shelter in-place comfortably- or even to ‘make the most of it’. I certainly fall into this category. In the months during Circuit Breaker (the SG version of lockdown) and after, I was confronted with the question of how I was using my privilege.
At some points I was fixated on how it sucks that I might not be able to meet up with my friends before I had to go back to HK. What got me out of the self-pitying rut was really reading stories of how people were acting for the common good of the community at the height of the pandemic. These were stories of people rising above their own adversity to help others, of people mobilizing manpower and resources to reach those in need, and people who band together to create something that can address the needs that have surfaced.
I have been interviewing amazing people who have started ground-up initiatives or volunteered their time to meet the needs that have sprung up due to COVID-19 in Singapore. Their stories of why they are doing this, the needs they feel for, and how they want to change the way things are for the people they serve has been my inspiration to press on in this PhD journey. They are also people who see their own privilege and want to use it to serve those less-privileged. Not just them, but they have observed people in affluent Singapore opening their hearts, schedules and wallets to help those in need during the pandemic.
Sociologist Michael Guggenheim writes that disasters are ‘inherently political events because they pose questions about who should be allowed to re-compose the world and how’ (2014, p.4). As I analyze the interview data I have thus far, it struck me that these people striving to address the needs they feel for are in fact giving a collective answer to these questions. The collective answer put forth is that our society is composed of everyone in it, regardless of economic worth. Because everyone is part of our society as an equal human being, we have mutual obligations to each other. Those with greater privilege and more resources have a greater responsibility.
Two interviewees so far have said that COVID-19 is a silver lining because people in Singapore were jolted out of their comfortable bubbles to really see the needs around them and that they have the means to support others. While it is unclear if these ground-up initiatives or volunteerism would translate to longer term participation or systemic changes, there is cause for hope that what has been seen during COVID-19 will not be unseen by at least some. We have witnessed the power of one or a few to inspire many to collective action, and so I am hopeful that COVID-19 will be remembered not just as a disruptive pandemic, but an event that transformed the world into a kinder, more just place.