Building resilience within our ecosystem and beyond


Abigail Smith, a volunteers from Covid Relief Bangkok. Photo: UN Women/Ploy Phutpheng

“During crises, volunteers play a vital role to provide support to people. Since the spread of COVID-19, they are working hard to help manage the situation. By doing so, they are staying at the frontline and are at high risk. We meet three volunteers from the COVID Relief group, during their charitable activities related to COVID-19 at Na Café. They share with us the valuable efforts they are offering in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

- What is your name? How long have you been in Thailand? 

I’m Abigail Smith, 35 years old. I have been in Thailand since early 2013, originally from the United States. I’m the programme and development director
for the Creative Migration (East) arts organization at Bangkok 1899.

- When was COVID Relief Bangkok created and how?

COVID Relief Bangkok was established in late March and was able to distribute its first donations to community members on 2 April. Local activists and NGOs formed this coalition in order to streamline resources during this pandemic.

It is spearheaded by SATI Foundation, along with COVID Relief Bangkok co-founders Urban Studies Lab and SOS. There are seven organizations involved with a core team of dedicated volunteers. Our team has a varied background in the non-profit sector, community building, communications and other useful skill sets to support this effort.

- What are your actions and who they are for? 

COVID Relief Bangkok identifies high-risk communities that would be adversely affected by the growing COVID-19 pandemic. This is conducted through university-led research. 

We provide immediate relief to the most at-risk members of these communities through basic needs care packages: sanitation products and shelf-stable food items. 

Through this, we can learn what the most pressing needs are, and identify other potential resources to help them in the future. Relief efforts in response to COVID-19 are necessary and will continue to be for some time. As this crisis continues to unfold, we are approaching this strategically, and will be flexible on how we respond. COVID Relief Bangkok is committed to supporting the city’s communities through our efforts long-term.

- How many family members do you have, where are they and what do they do? 

I do not have any family in Bangkok, but I am blessed with an incredible network of colleagues and friends here. Everyone is doing what they can to stay safe, sane, and proactive and be of service when possible.

My closest family (my parents and brother) are in New York. My parents are high-risk, as they both have pre-existing conditions, and are under strict quarantine. My brother is in lockdown in his NYC flat. He works as a university professor and is now learning how to teach online. 

- What challenges have you faced with the outbreak of COVID-19? 

One of the main aspects of my work is relationship and community building for the Nang Loeng neighbourhood where Bangkok 1899 is located – this is also the first area to receive COVID Relief care packages. I am highly concerned for my neighbours who are mostly over the age of 55 years old.

Most of our projects are based around hands-on and face-to-face interactions, so we have a steep learning curve on how to reach our stakeholders in these days of essential social distancing. 

Beyond that, I am concerned how both the non-profit that I work for, and the organizations that I work with, will manage to stay afloat financially through this period, as well as how to recover in order to continue to create meaningful and impactful programmes.

- How has COVID-19 impacted your life, business and work? 

My work life has completely shifted. All our commitments and opportunities this year have been cancelled or postponed indefinitely. Our foundation’s projected revenue for 2020 has all but dried up. Furthermore, our upcoming programmes simply will not work in a post COVID-19 landscape for some time. 

Creative Migration (East) and many of our partners are strategizing how to quickly pivot our focus and energy, while balancing how to stay funded in the immediate future. Building resilience within our ecosystem and beyond will ensure that we will have the tools needed to support our community once we are able to move past this pandemic.

- Since you are on the front line, what does your day look like now? 

I am very cautious, and only go into work when absolutely needed. My days are spent answering messages for people who want to get involved, making online connections, taking conference meetings to discuss strategy and researching potential funding sources – mostly all from my kitchen table.

- Are you afraid of contracting the virus?

Of course, I am afraid. I would not be paying attention if I were not afraid of this. 

- What support or protection is provided by your organization to make sure you are safe? 

Bangkok 1899 is the home base for this initiative. Our team has taken all the necessary precautions to make it a safe place for people to be in. Our space typically acts as an arts centre with a social impact café called “Na” (related to the lead COVID Relief Bangkok NGO partner, SATI Foundation). Our premise was originally built as a home where we host an international artist residency programme and work towards our hub implementing sustainable practices throughout our day-to-day operations.

To respond to this crisis, we have transformed our space to function as a donation centre to drop-off, store, sort and distribute basic need essentials to local communities, and also housing for four staff working on our relief effort.

In addition, Na Café is delivery-only with strict food service guidelines. All workers, volunteers and donors allowed on the premises regularly have their temperature checked, are required to wear masks, practice social distancing and wear gloves while handling goods that come in and go out. Disinfectant and hand sanitizer are available throughout the entire Bangkok 1899 hub.

- For how long have you been working without seeing your family? Who is taking care of your family? 

As my family lives in New York, the last time I saw them was in August. I was planning to go for a visit in April, but now I do not know when I will be able to travel to America. My parents are high-risk but able to take care of themselves. They are working on food delivery chains for their neighbourhood. 

In Bangkok, I have not seen friends or any non-essential colleagues since the 18th of March.

- What do you need most now? What is an urgent issue that should be addressed now? 

Funding. An urgent issue that needs to be addressed is how small NGOs and businesses will financially survive through this, and be able to pay their teams, who otherwise will have no funds to live off of.

- What solutions are you coming up with? 

We are working on government and other available funding in the United States, since most of Bangkok 1899’s support is through Creative Migration, our US non-profit organization. We are waiting to find out what kind of support Thailand will offer non-profits. 

For COVID Relief Bangkok, we have set up a Socialgiver online campaign for funding, and are trying to work with corporations for donations of goods or funds to support our operations of supply distribution to at-risk community members. 

Creative Migration (East) can play a strong role in reconstruction. We are developing projects that could launch in the next two months and continue for about a year. Our team is searching for funds to open up for reconstruction projects in order to launch our responsive programming ideas.

- Why do you think COVID-19 is impacting women differently? 

Women are historically the caretakers in society; the mothers, the nurses, the cooks, the educators, the maids of the world. The COVID-19 crisis is placing an enormous amount of pressure on women right now. In normal times, women are looked to for basic nurturing. In times of crisis, women are counted to deliver on this, while remaining strong and steadfast in the face of unimaginable pressure and heartache.

Often in family systems, it is the daughter, sister or niece who looks in on and takes care of the most elderly family members. As this disease puts senior community members at the most risk, these same daughters are not just feeling pressure to care for their parents, but now have the added pressure to protect them as well. 

- What’s your advice for decision-makers? 

My advice to decision makers – who are not involved in the immediate relief of supporting hospitals and supply chains – is to begin to focus on what reconstruction we need to be building now to ensure that we are able to return to a civil society when this crisis passes.