Emerging lessons from community-led COVID-19 responses in urban areas

In the first of a new IIED series setting out key lessons from the coronavirus pandemic, we look at how community organisations in urban areas mobilised to respond to the crisis.

Article, 25 June 2020
A group of people pointing to a bucket

The Tanzania Urban Poor Federation and the Centre for Community Initiatives (CCI) trained community members to deliver COVID-19 awareness and prevention initiatives in informal settlements (Photo: copyright CCI)

Beyond COVID-19: grassroots visions of change

This article is the first in a new IIED series that brings together forward-looking responses on specific themes in reaction to the coronavirus pandemic, drawing on our partners’ insights and providing a platform for voices from the global South.

Here Alice Sverdlik looks at how community organisations are responding to COVID-19.

Community-based organisations across Africa, Asia, and Latin America generated creative, collective emergency responses to COVID-19. Many grassroots groups helped to fill gaps, for example, by improving handwashing facilities (see video below) and delivering food parcels. To address rising hunger, community kitchens proliferated in Bogotá. In Bangkok, cupboards were left on pavements to be filled with food (‘community pantries’) that residents could take for free. 

When facing delayed or regressive governmental responses, grassroots organisations developed parallel structures and countervailing tactics to foster wellbeing. In Paraisópolis (São Paulo), newly-established ‘street presidents’ deliver masks, visit vulnerable residents, and crowdfund for local COVID reception centres.

Grassroots organisations also opposed punitive state responses such as Zimbabwe’s ‘slum clearances’ and closures of informal markets; the Homeless People’s Federation and partners are preparing a class action lawsuit to fight evictions.

Tim Ndezi, from the Centre for Community Initiatives (CCI), describes intiatives to combat COVID-19 in informal settlements. Also available on IIED's YouTube channel 

Even when governments seek to address COVID-19, community-led organisations can complement these initiatives and reach vulnerable groups. In Karachi, Mumbai, and the Philippines, grassroots groups help to identify needy households and enhance aid targeting.

Freetown’s slum-dweller federation worked with religious leaders to close schools and religious sites, while also bolstering the city’s broader COVID-19 response. Other initiatives directly support marginalised residents and affirm their dignity, including refugee-led groups mobilising supplies in Kenya and Uganda

Towards an inclusive, long-term recovery?

Grassroots actors have also repurposed community spaces and influenced official interventions. In Argentina, former chapels help shield the elderly (PDF); the Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (ACHR) is developing community-level quarantines (PDF) when households cannot socially distance. Kenya’s slum-dweller federation regularly collects data on cases in informal settlements; it also mapped community isolation areas and contributed to government guidelines on isolation.

After lockdowns hit informal workers (PDF) extremely hard, they launched crowdfunding campaigns alongside strategies to promote livelihoods and public recognition. According to Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO), many informal labourers are ‘essential workers,’ including waste-pickers and street vendors selling affordable foods. Informal labourers increasingly stitch facemasks; in Uruguay, home-based workers were widely lauded for producing thousands of masks for government officials. 

Novel communications strategies are helping to disseminate information and create alliances. In Brazil, social movements and other partners launched an online COVID-19 platform (Portuguese language site), mapping sources of support and providing opportunities to volunteer or donate; over 1,000 organisations have already registered.

A Mexican ‘feminist trading’ platform (PDF) (on social media) supports the exchange of goods and services for vulnerable workers, with a deeper objective of fostering women’s solidarity.

Community murals, radio, TV, and social media can all combat misinformation on COVID-19. Community-led organisations significantly amplified health messages, such as Malawi’s slum-dweller federation and Lilongwe’s District Health Office using a public address system to raise awareness with 30,000 residents.

The way forward: scaling-up and deepening grassroots-led approaches

It remains crucial to scale up solutions co-produced by residents and governments, as well as to strengthen new alliances.

During this complex crisis, community-led solutions are necessary but insufficient. With further support and networking, transformative recovery plans may emerge rooted in grassroots creativity, while also fostering social justice and belated recognition for low-income residents’ contributions.


Below is a list of online resources about community-led COVID-19 responses in urban areas. We will update this list during the coming months.

Read more:

Our collection about coronavirus examines some of the emerging impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on the people and places where we work.