On Our Own – COVID-19 in Southeast Asia

On Our Own: COVID-19 in Southeast Asia

By Rosalia Sciortino


Southeast Asia was the first region outside of China to be affected by COVID-19 following the identification of a first case in Thailand in January 2020. Although that year most of the region managed to keep the pandemic under control, the socio-economic impacts were severe as social life was disrupted and livelihoods lost. A year on, the pandemic is exploding and social protection and relief measures are falling short of ameliorating living conditions.

In Southeast Asia, as in the rest of the world, the pandemic has laid bare the implications of health and socio-economic inequity on people well-being and safety.  As many have pointed out, COVID-19 is much more than a health crisis. It has amplified social and cultural aspects of human behaviour and their shaping risk and emphasized the political dimensions of health and health governance. Yet, national responses have generally failed to comprehensively address the multiple dimensions of the pandemic, focusing narrowly on medical and macro-economic factors and often opting for a securitization rather than humanitarian or equity approach. In this context, ordinary people have had to find their own ways to address fear and uncertainties and survive amidst economic shortcomings and social deprivation.

This selection of photos provides a glimpse of how individuals and communities are experiencing the pandemic in Southeast Asia by finding strength in their own cultural idioms and social networks and support systems –at times with support of civil society organizations and private funding— aside or instead of counting on government’s support. In particular, marginalized communities like sexual and ethnic communities and migrant groups have had to count on their peer or sympathetic parties having been overlooked if not discriminated by official responses. The photos have been collected by SEA Junction as part of a special initiative launched in June 2020 with the title “From Fear to Resilience: Storytelling of COVID-19 in Southeast Asia” and other related activities. Most are part of the visual essays submitted by local photographers, professional and non, who voluntarily shared their imaging of the pandemic. The complete sets can be found on SEA Junction’s website at http://seajunction.org/special-initiatives/.

Here, only 15 photos are showcased to illustrate individual and community resilience through a collective story in three modules of the ways 1) art becomes a mean to uplift the spirit beyond confinement; 2) local communities find protection in an etiological world where disease is more than its clinical manifestation; 3) solidarity is essential to build community responses with or in lack of government efforts. Left on their own, people find in their inner self and their community a source of survival and resilience. Their actions talk of their strength, but also of the shortcomings in official responses insufficient to fill existing needs, of both an existential and a practical nature.