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As Covid-19 began to take its toll in New York City back in March, over in Hong Kong, artist Tiffany Sia watched the number of infections and deaths rise in horror. Having spent her childhood and adolescence in Manhattan before returning to her city of birth, she was deeply troubled by the lack of available basic protection, even as she watched her friends and family members living there contract Covid-19, and American officials tell people not to wear masks. Frustrated that Americans weren’t embracing what she saw as a simple way to confront an increasingly dire situation, she got in touch with a few friends, including Wilfred Chan, a contributing writer to The Nation, to set up a “DIY supply network”—in their words—to fundraise, purchase masks from a reliable distributor contact Sia had found, and get these masks in the hands of people working on the front lines at medical centers, at supermarkets, and inside Rikers.
When the virus began to die down in Hong Kong, Sia was not the only one supporting those on the other side of the world: Many Hong Kongers, connected through a large diaspora around the world, are sending masks and supplies to their family and friends around the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. “Every time we go to FedEx, it is completely jam-packed,” she says, describing how she and other volunteers must arrive at the courier offices in the morning for a number, and wait up to three hours in line for their number to be called because of the number of people posting boxes of masks.
Despite being faced with a pandemic that has little concept of national borders—or statelessness—national governments are still competing against one another and imposing trade restrictions not just on personal protective equipment (PPE) and medical supplies but also on potential treatments for the virus.
And yet, globally, there are now more than 9 million cases of Covid-19, and the virus has found its way to every continent except Antarctica. Already, the pandemic and its effects have cut the global flow of people, goods, and money, particularly remittances, the personal savings migrants send to their families in their home countries. The World Bank has predicted that remittances will experience a historically sharp decline, falling from $551 billion in 2019 to $445 billion this year, a drop of 20 percent. “Even remittance source countries have been impacted, and perhaps even more so than recipient countries,” said Dilip Ratha, lead economist on migration and remittances for the World Bank.
Against this backdrop, grassroots groups connected by diaspora are stepping in as a foil. Though diaspora organizations can range from informal social clubs to institutionalized business associations, because they are defined by having a connection to a common homeland or base culture across borders, they have structural advantages that make them well-poised to turn into transnational networks of mutual aid when they need to, says Jennifer Brinkerhoff, an associate professor of international relations at George Washington University specializing in international development, diaspora, and the voluntary sector. “To the extent that these are communities bound by their passion for their place of origin, with a mix of skills, the potential is quite significant to help people cope during Covid-19.”
Already, people connected by diaspora “have more experience creating communities online. They know how to connect with people who live at great distances physically, they understand how to connect with people that they don’t know personally,” she says. “But they also have the professional networks to get the resources needed [to and from] that country.”
When it comes to emergency response, according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration, “diasporas are not only often the first to respond; their political, social, cultural and human capital coupled with their in-depth knowledge of the country, and familiarity with local languages, social, cultural, and religious norms, can lead to more targeted and tailored responses.”
“The advantage of these networks is they can get fellow compatriots to contribute to what they’re doing. Rather than trusting an anonymous bureaucracy, the potential to mobilize resources that would otherwise not be mobilized is quite high,” says Brinkerhoff.
From Filipino and Indian diaspora organizations helping international students, to doctors and health professionals sharing medical medical advice within their respective diasporas from countries in East Africa and Armenia, members of transnational communities have stepped in where national governments have failed.
Indeed, as humanitarian crises and migration scholars Dennis Dijkzuel and Margit Fauser write in Diaspora Organizations in International Affairs, diaspora organizations may be seen not only “emancipatory forces serving the grass roots and giving voice to migrants” but also “service-delivery substitutes in places where governments, international NGOs, and United Nations (UN) organizations are either too bureaucratic and inefficient, or lack access and local acceptance.”
Brinkerhoff points out that informal diaspora networks can mobilize quicker than governments or for-profits since they’re not bound to the same formalized structures.
In Honduras, the grassroots nature of such organizations have enabled them to circumvent government bureaucracy and corruption that have left medical staff without adequate PPE. Those working on the front line in Honduras have had to rely on informal efforts such as @unidos.por.honduras, an Instagram page set up by two friends in San Pedro Sula, Marielle Hawit and Paolina Kafati, who asked friends and family around the world to donate via Go Fund Me and Venmo so they could buy equipment such as thermometers, oximeters, and vital-sign monitors for staff working in hospitals and testing centers. “It’s a bit unfortunate to say this, but the government received a lot of money, and I don’t know what they’re doing with it,” says Kafati.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Nicaragua, it’s been up to the large diaspora living primarily in Costa Rica and the United States to provide not just material support but also information about the virus. With Vice President Rosario Murillo dismissing medical professionals’ complaints over a lack of equipment as an attempt to spread conspiracy theories, and her husband President Daniel Ortega publicly attacking Covid-19 prevention measures, coupled with a restricted press, the task of health communication has fallen to grassroots networks such as Nicaragua Libre Los Angeles, SOS Nicaragua Costa Rica and the Coalition of Nicaraguans Exiled in Panama to disseminate even basic information such as how to properly wash your hands, via their respective Facebook groups.
The founder of Nicaragua Libre Los Angeles, Grettel Campbell, says that she’s been hosting interviews with doctors and working with singers to create public health messaging to post on Facebook, while SOS Nicaragua CR has posted informational videos from the Panamerican Health Organization. The latter organization has also collaborated with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to deliver care packages to the vast Nicaraguan population in Costa Rica, including those who haven’t been allowed back into their home country despite no official border closure.
Campbell sends a video that shows her companions in Masaya and Managua delivering beans, rice, sugar, oil, masa harina, masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves—all packed into red reusable tote bags—to families of hospital workers and political prisoners. Since the outbreak of the virus, Campbell, says she has brought together “siblings, cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles” in both the United States and Nicaragua to raise money.
“To be honest, it’s not a lot,” says Campbell, when asked how many donations she’s received so far. She acknowledges the difficulty of the task when many Nicaraguans abroad who would normally be sending support have lost their jobs as well. Still, she points out, “we’ve organized the community. We’re taking care of ourselves.”
Though it’s perhaps too soon to quantify exactly what a difference this help has made, 13 weeks after Sia and Chan started the Hong Kong to NYC mask circuit, they have raised over $29,000 to send over 56,000 masks to the United States. They’ve since expanded beyond their original remit, and have sent masks to people of the Navajo Nation, the Havasupai community, and Ojibwe, Kiowa, White Mountain Apache, and Zuni Tribes, as well as to protesters in New York City and Minnesota.
Sia says diasporic community trust was absolutely key in reaching this scale, or even being able to send masks in the first place. “For myself, and others involved in this initiative—many are Hong Kong diaspora but not all—we feel deeply how dire the situation is because it’s impacting our community, our friends and our family,” Sia says. “This wouldn’t be possible, I think, if we didn’t have a diaspora network; between having a foothold in [both places], and just knowing what the needs are.”