Health and Healthcare Systems

Why informal networks will be key to the COVID-19 recovery

Konstantinos Papadopoulos of the "Isarland Oekokiste", an organic delivery service for Munich and the south-eastern region, delivers products to a customer, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Unterhaching, Germany, April 1, 2020. REUTERS/Andreas Gebert - UP1EG410PFHK9

Community organizations are stepping up to help those in need. Image: REUTERS/Andreas Gebert

Mouchka Heller
Lead, Automotive and New Mobility, World Economic Forum LLC
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  • Informal networks including community organizations and faith-based groups are stepping in to help people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • They fill gaps in resources and services often left empty by traditional public and private organizations.
  • The informal networks forming today may shape our economic and health recovery from COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred the creation of many formal emergency responses, initiatives and partnerships. But often the first people on the scene within communities most impacted by the outbreak are informal networks, groups of people connected by social ties, including community organizations, faith groups and clubs.

Here are four reasons why informal networks are essential to enacting meaningful change and must be an important part of the COVID-19 response.


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1. Informal networks fill gaps other organizations don’t.

Around the world, informal networks often provide bridges over systemic gaps that, for one reason or another, are not filled by existing institutions. Lower-income, socially isolated and disenfranchised households who live in mobility deserts, areas where people cannot access core services without a vehicle, are often the first hit during crises.

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, many community organizations have stepped in to deliver food and basic supplies to those who need it and help their neighbourhoods self-quarantine. For example, some community organizations are fundraising and using the money raised to provide digital gift cards to supermarkets that will deliver, helping families make meals for events including Easter, Ramadan and Passover. In addition, UNICEF partnered with informal networks including Joint Learning Initiative of Local Faith Communities and Religions for Peace to help support organizations handle decisions about providing resources to their communities.

The practice is not new. Rather, it is an old tactic of disadvantaged populations, capable of zeroing in on systemic challenges of a community. In Detroit, for example, where transportation costs 30% in net income for the poorest 20% households, and where public transit is lacking, residents leverage a network of social favours and informal car sharing to get to job interviews, buy food and get to school. In neighbourhoods like Washington Heights in New York City, the Dollar Van network, a network of off-the-grid ride-hailing and shared-mobility solutions helps people cope with insufficient public transit, with higher ridership than some private mobility providers.

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2. They are natural focus groups.

Data on marginalized communities can be particularly difficult to collect with a certain standard of rigour. A wide range of efforts, from census to commercial enterprise still has no choice but to rely on that data in spite of the gaps that may find their way into their insights. For example, consider communities like First Nations in Canada, which represent indigenous populations in the country and which closed its borders to limit the exposure of the COVID-19 outbreak. The network generates interest from non-profit, governmental and academic organizations around the world for the data it collects on its community.

Informal networks provide a solution to this challenge. Leaders of informal networks concentrate knowledge of their specific groups in order to support them. They not only have an intimate understanding of the socio-economic conditions of life in their communities but are also exceptionally finely tuned into cultural nuances, challenges for trust and possible partnerships with formal institutions. This means that for organizations going into a new region or deploying a new technology or testing a new concept, often the fastest way to get reliable and complete data is through the leader of a community network.

Data from informal networks can be uncoordinated, lacking in the most basic operationalization best practices, but that is partly because there is no defined framework for approaching informal networks. Instead, community leaders often store information that they deem relevant, following practices that they deem best, and retain the full picture of the needs, wants, failures and successes of their people. As we consider more inclusive initiatives, we need to consider adapting our own frameworks for data collection and make it appealing for these leaders to join the table and share their knowledge.

Corinne Henslee, Kevin Henslee, Ellen Henslee and Jimmy Myers prepare orders at Front 9 Farm where they have started offering weekly deliveries of vegetables, meats, cheeses and other fresh items following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Lodi, Ohio, U.S., April 3, 2020. Picture taken April 3, 2020.  REUTERS/Dane Rhys - RC2A0G9B2DX5
These Ohio farmers have started offering weekly deliveries of vegetables, meats, cheeses during the coronavirus outbreak. Image: REUTERS/Dane Rhys

3. Informal networks have people’s trust.

Informal networks are often motivated differently than public or private entities. Faith-based entities often adopt a "flock" mentality, with promises of spiritual rewards. Neighbourhood organizations often create their own tribal system to build a microcosm they work hard to preserve.

An informal network is often built on a piece of identity that finds itself threatened by the greater mass, like international student groups who connect to cook food from home on college campuses. Many immigrants have experienced the happy surprise of unexpectedly hearing a phrase from home, said just like their mothers would, and the immediate resulting sense of trust connection. These informal networks tend to be the first to show up in a crisis, take more risks for each other and can become powerful allies.

When COVID-19 hit Westchester, for instance, days before the Jewish holiday of Purim in early March, while public institutions established a lockdown, and private companies reconsidered commercial opportunities, faith leaders from the Chasidic network of Chabad read the Megillah at the door of locked homes. In Tokyo, Seoul, Rome and Milan, the network adapted to the rapidly unfolding situation by celebrating the holiday in new ways, approved by health authorities.

To ensure that we are in fact beginning a period of recovery, institutions need to partner with formal networks to help enforce and scale recommended health measures, mitigate the toll the pandemic is taking on mental health, and build trust in public and private institutions so the panic does not persist past the worst of the health crisis, possibly transforming into an economic depression.

As the world recovers from this pandemic, there will be more criticism of how one institution or another responded to the crisis, at what speed, with what measures. Informal networks can help balance these important conversations with constructive positivity to help make sure the world moves forward.

4. They might be invisible, but they can change the world.

The Arab Spring is one of the more recent noteworthy examples of an informal network changing the world. People, apparently without much organization, enacted change dictated by their common values, bringing about a revolution that could have hardly been born from any civic, public or private organization.

They were not the first and they will not be the last. The American Revolution was started by a self-organized militia of farmers, motivated by the infamous issue of “taxation without representation.” Vladimir Lenin built a reputation that would bring an end to Tsarist Russia through “underground party work.” Even the Taliban, when they first coalesced in the early 1990s, started as just a small group of guerrilla fighters who had resisted the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989) and were joined by a group of students, which gave them their name as Taliban means “student” in Pashto.

There are millions of people around the world that are vulnerable to shocks and disruptions like the one caused by COVID-19. The pandemic has generated historically high unemployment, and our numbers are exclusive of many including undocumented and cash-based workers. When the World Bank recently attempted to quantify the economic fallout from COVID-19, its Chief Economist for East Asia and the Pacific said “the worst suffering could be for informal workers, people who are… invisible and very hard to go identity, find and help.”

A volunteer of Southridge Church hands out bags of essential items, including toilet paper and masks, after Easter services were held at West Wind Capitol Drive-In Theater, while the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in San Jose, California, U.S. April 12, 2020. REUTERS/Kate Munsch - RC293G9OAFKR
A volunteer of Southridge Church hands out bags of essential items, including toilet paper and masks, after Easter services were held in San Jose, California, U.S. April 12, 2020. Image: REUTERS/Kate Munsch

This epidemic is turning into an economic crisis, partly because of the immeasurable strain it has put on small businesses and lower-income households. Many of those who have lost their jobs or closed their business over the last month are holding their breath for a check from the government to bring some relief to their families. Several would still rather risk exposure than not deliver a parcel for a few dollars.

It would be wrong to think this is a tragedy of the vulnerable, not relevant for the masses because these are the same people who who have had to take public transit to reach supermarkets, test centres and shelter. These are people who do not have savings accounts to rely on until their next job, who might not be healthy enough to wait a few more years for their retirement funds to gain back some of its fat. When they get subsidies, they use them on essentials and debt payments. When they don’t, they go back to their informal networks, the same informal networks that have been providing free meals for religious holidays or delivering cribs and diapers to new mothers.

Nevertheless, if these informal networks are not adequately empowered, there is only so much they will be able to do. If we come up short in supporting the COVID-19 and economic recovery and they do too, there is little way to predict how much the pain of the people we routinely leave behind will cost the global economy in healthcare, rise in crime, space in shelters and relief funds.

A community is forming, right now, posting on Facebook and Instagram, sending texts and phone calls, singing and clapping from their balconies, writing messages and drawing rainbows on their windows, waving across at their neighbour standing six feet away from them in line to the supermarket. Without it, older individuals might not be able to afford adequate care at home and free hospital bed after testing positive. With it, laid off waiters, bartenders and security guards are hired as personal shoppers to make up some of their lost income amidst considerable uncertainty.

Informal networks can change the reality of individuals. In some circumstances, history shows that such impact can scale quite rapidly and go as far as transforming the world. We could be standing on a once-in-a-lifetime crossroad, where one word ends and another begins. If we are committed to making that new world a better one, who are we to dismiss these powerful allies?

If these informal networks, formed to cope and recover from COVID-19 got organized, what could they do? If we could reach out, what could we do?

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