Regional ASEAN LGBTQI network talks about Covid-19 in Southeast Asia

By January 19, 2021 Newsroom, Regional

Lini Zurlia,

Advocacy Officer, ASEAN SOGIE Caucus

We are a regional organization of human rights defenders from various countries in Southeast Asia. We advocate for the promotion, protection and fulfilment for the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer people, and gender-diverse persons in Southeast Asia. The organization supports the capacities of local advocates to engage with domestic, regional and international human rights mechanisms.

How has COVID-19 affected the work that your organization is doing?

Our Secretariat is currently located in Quezon City (National Capital Region), Philippines. As you may have heard on the news, our country has had one of the longest-running lockdown measures. Operations-wise, the Secretariat has been doing whatever it can to work around a truly and nightmarishly incompetent system. You may have heard much from the news, but the real situation is far worse. For our members, it has also been a mixed bag. People have had to stop advocacy initiatives because of quarantine restrictions, crackdowns on activists on the pretense of protecting public health, and just basic exhaustion. We are all having to adjust to new circumstances, as individuals, as part of a household or family, and as part of a larger community.

Regionally, we are still facing a litany of crisis mismanagement that is shocking even for ASEAN. And in some places, governments are still using the same rulebook for their crackdowns on human rights. You have misinformation campaigns to curb dissent and to galvanize “trolls” to deflect attention away from the situation with fake news. You have the ironic disregard of life amidst a public health crisis, whether it is mass incarceration of migrant workers or the outright neglect of healthcare workers. Then there are the flare-ups of racial and ethnic tensions, whether it is blaming the spread of the virus on ethnic minority groups or even LGBTIQ people. Also sadly expected was the use of the crisis as a pretense for seizing even more power, with the promulgation of new laws that rightfully worries activists who see it further eroding the country’s human rights situation.

Fundamentally, we can no longer work as we used to. Any insistence that we do is not only dangerous, but frankly very ignorant.

How has your organization adapted to COVID-19?

We have many obligations and commitments to honor, and relationships with many kinds of people who count on us to help advance human rights in the region. There was a lot of talking and back-and-forth, but at the end of the day it was about making it clear that this is not business as usual. Changes have to be made, and not just to deadlines. We’ve had to rework everything, and quickly: adjusting program goals so budgets and activities can directly support crisis response, providing technical and financial support for the use of online spaces without unnecessarily adding to the burden and exhaustion of people involved, reworking our work goals collaboratively so we can all pay attention to our own personal circumstances, and negotiating however we can with our partners so they can also be supported in adjusting to this new situation. This has also meant just giving people space and time to breathe, to just stop with work and whatever deliverables we may have, and to emphasize that none of this is ever as important as your own health. There is no point in following any stringent personal and social hygiene practices to avoid getting sick, if at the end of the day it’s your organization that is going to make you sick instead.

Did you initiate specific projects in response to COVID-19? Would it be possible to briefly share these responses?

We’ve tried two broad approaches: stronger integration of crisis response in ongoing programs, and creating separate programs specifically for crisis response. One example of the former is that we completely reworked our ASEAN Queer Leadership Week (now “ASEAN Queer Leadership eXchange” or “AQLX”) so that the objectives specifically moved towards supporting and building on leadership practice among LGBTIQ activists facing this crisis. For the latter, we retooled our program on supporting local initiatives so that local organizations can get the help they need, and we worked with them closely to make sure they got that help.

And again, it is also not just about adding new things on our plate to do. The whole plate needed to be replaced. To use the AQLX as an example, we directly invested in things like a communications allowance so that participants without access to a stable home internet can participate more effectively in our sessions. We also spaced these sessions out, from a single week to an entire month, because people have their own lives they need to tend to and online interactions are simply not the same as face-to-face interactions in many different ways. You cannot just log people into Zoom and just proceed as if you were all in the same room. You cannot just treat this situation like an extended work-from-home situation. And if this is not yet clearly obvious, then we seriously need to step back and think about what we’re really doing both to ourselves and to one-another.

Another examples of specific projects to respond to the covid-19 are: 

1.) Rainbow Reach Out. We conducted rapid assessment to read the situation on a national level. After reading their situation from various sources, ASC ran a project to support organizations in need of financial support to launch their programs or even distribute food and essential kit to the local community.

2.) Dare to Share online hangout with our members and networks. Many of our friends and networks were in isolation as a result of quarantine measures as health precaution. ASEAN SOGIE Caucus had an online group call to hear from them directly their situation on personal and community level. We had our networks from the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand share their story. 

3.) Mobilize Rainbow Resilience joint statement. We made a call to mobilize funders of Southeast Asian LGBTIQ organizations to develop understanding that the pandemic affects everyone, including the work of organization. The new public health policies in response to curb the spread of COVID-19 might potentially disrupt programs. In the joint statement we also appeal to the funders to let individuals prioritize their wellbeing in the crisis.

Moving forward, what do you think we need to adjust/rethink in our LGBTQI work post COVID-19?

Everything. We cannot stress this enough. All our habits, routines, and insecurities around advocacy as “work” need to change. In our own assessments, and just looking at our collective experience over the years, as organizations we really ought to wonder whether enough was being done to allow our local activism to address long standing issues which underline (and undermine) all other work. Because the pandemic has not just created new and unique vulnerabilities; it has made old vulnerabilities worse. And the fact of the global public health crisis, regardless of how one feels about whether we should have foreseen it, is irrelevant. With or without COVID-19, the concerns are the same: Front-line advocates are not adequately provided for; old vulnerabilities so often repeated in campaign after campaign and publication after publication remain grossly and inadequately unaddressed; and so many mainstream activities, and the priorities they represent, are either unsustainable from the start or are not allowed to be sustained because of whatever funding and program restrictions.

Anything else you wish to share?

ASEAN SOGIE Caucus is a regional organization, but we are still just an organization. We need to all work together. And we really hope that we can count on each-other, now more than ever.

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