Women's social enterprises in India, supported by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme and its partners, began sewing masks almost immediately – in many cases for free – to protect their communities.
Despite the very real threat of vaccine nationalism and instances where countries have prioritised self-preservation over global cooperation, over the past year there have also been many instances of incredible cooperation, coordination and international selflessness. As we enter the second year of this pandemic, we would do well to remember those and draw on their inspiration.
In London, I have been struck this year by how many people have reached out to neighbours they barely knew – the elderly, the infirm, the sheltered and the shielding. One of the tragic ironies of a pandemic is that the very instincts of solidarity we normally celebrate are actually dangerous. But for so many, the desire to help our neighbours (safely) transcended these constraints in 2020.
In the UK, we saw millions of people clapping for carers, and thousands of them hungry for a way to connect and contribute. Very quickly, voluntary schemes of all kinds sprouted across the country – from schoolchildren keeping fit with Joe Wicks and his virtual PE, to restaurants and hospitality staff forming volunteer kitchens to provide meals for National Health Service workers or other vulnerable people. In our neighbourhood, fliers quickly appeared in every mailbox offering help with shopping and deliveries.
In our own household, my wife quickly contacted the 92-year old neighbour we’d hardly spoken with and offered to help with her groceries. After almost a year now of speaking to her each weekend — and the pleasure of some socially-distanced drinks together in her front garden during this summer’s brief pause in the lockdown — we have become friends. What took us so long, and why did it take a pandemic for so many of us to get to know our neighbours? Whatever the delay, it has made bonds in our area stronger, and I think it says something fundamental about us, despite the fraying social fabric we can also witness.
This past year, my role at the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) has given me a keen appreciation for the vital contributions that community organisations and non-profits have made during this pandemic. And it has convinced me even further how fundamentally important AKF’s long-term support of civil society in Asia and Africa is and has been.