Beyond Social Distancing & Lockdowns: It’s time to harness ‘Capacity to Respond’ in our communities


What does a country do when the enemy is at the gate?

For weeks, country after country has attempted to keep the Coronavirus threat at bay by barring the gates, isolating itself and reducing ‘infiltration’ into the country. As these barriers have been crossed, and the coronavirus has begun to enter the ‘bloodstream,’ countries have been responding through systemic lockdowns based on ‘social distancing.’

This approach has its limits.

In smaller countries it may be possible for the government to enforce the law and create an effective shutdown. But, how does the government enforce ‘safe behavior’ in a country of 1.2 billion people? How does the government create ‘awareness’ levels and enough personal responsibility so as to invoke safe behavior in such large numbers of people in so short a time?

Moreover can lockdowns be viable for long in a country with an exceptionally large number of daily wage earners who must work to live and do not have the financial surpluses to tide over weeks of unemployment and social isolation?

Perhaps a country like India needs to consider an additional strategy to that followed by countries like China or Korea. What if we think about a world beyond lockdowns to a world where we invoke collective capacity to respond in a community?

What is collective capacity to respond?

Individual response and collective response are qualitatively different:

  • Since individuals vary widely – i) in the types of capabilities, ii) in terms of resources, iii) in quality of knowledge / thinking, iv) in intention & willingness to engage with a challenge – it is reasonable to expect an equally wide range of responses from individuals. 
  • On the other hand, collective response is determined by how a group of people – i) can organize themselves, ii) can play different roles based on their relative capabilities, iii) can share resources, and iv) can survive as long as a few people within the community have the stomach to engage with a challenge. 

Thus it is reasonable that “collective capacity to respond” is likely to deliver more consistent positive outcomes than “individual capacity to respond” in the context of a crisis facing the whole community.

Building Collective Capacity to Respond:
An Approach

How do we harness ‘‘collective capacity to respond” in a crisis such as this one?

There are three key building blocks in the solution:

Building Block 1 – Enabling communities to self-identify themselves as “ecosystems of response” instead of self-identifying themselves as passive bystanders in the interplay between the government and the individual.

What does an Ecosystem of Response mean? It could range from buying essentials for the elderly, supporting those suffering from other ailments, providing care and concern, to helping weaker members tide over cash-flow issues and providing informal credit. The list is endless.

In short, it means creating community level ability to handle the human cost of – first the lockdown, second the illness itself, three the recovery of the community and society beyond the lockdown. 

Communities may be defined in multiple ways: by geography– such as a group of people who live together in a slum or an apartment complex, as a religious group – such as a church or temple community, as a business group such as the trading communities; or an ethnic group, etc.

But what is critical is that these groups or communities are catalyzed into ecosystems of response at the earliest so that they become aware of their role and responsibility in i) protecting themselves at a community level against the threat of transmission ii) building resilience in the community to deal with the crisis iii) partnering with the government authorities in handling an unprecedented crisis as it unfolds.

Building Block 2: Creating Active Citizens within these communities.

Harnessing the power of communities will require the creation of active citizens in every community who will proactively aim to protect the community from the spread of the disease. For example, the government can ask housing colonies to nominate one active citizen for every 10-20 families.

During the lockdown phase, Active Citizens will be urgently needed to reconcile the need to i) keep social distancing and ensure effective lockdown on one side and ii) ensure access to all the living necessities on the other side.

During the social distancing phase & the early stages of the crisis, we can expect a large proportion of the population will actively avoid reporting, given the education levels, fear of institutional authority and the threat of quarantine. Active Citizens will be needed to create a highly vigilant community that will identify cases early and control the spread of the disease within the community due to unreported & misdiagnosed cases.  

As the crisis proceeds, it is these active citizens who can enable those affected to access the right kind of help, ensure that they are quarantined without overloading the larger institutional infrastructure. Given the paucity of healthcare resources, it is critical to follow a staged approach to getting treatment, with mild cases being handled at the community level itself.

Beyond the immediate crisis, it will be the other, economic and social consequences of lockdowns and extended periods of income loss that will make themselves felt.

At this stage the active citizens can take the help of response enablers – the third building block of this model to translate the range of measures that the government will take up into effective solutions for the community. This is discussed next.

Building Block 3: Supporting these communities with the help of ‘Response Enablers’.

How do we trigger the transformation of communities into ecosystems of response and the creation of active citizens in every community?

One trigger is formal engagement with such community groups by local authorities.

A second trigger is imitation and role modeling of behavior in some communities.

However, a third trigger is needed. There is also a necessity for a catalyst either from within the community or outside to enable this shift. It is here that the political class, the large socio-religious movements in India, the NGOs / social sector, and the “extended ecosystem” of the government connected with the various social welfare schemes of the government, all have a role.

Members of these groups can take on the role of response enablers, who will play different roles as this crisis evolves.

In the early stages, response enablers may be necessary to help the community self-identify itself and promote the creation of a pool of active citizens within the community.

In the next stage, response enablers address the challenge of helping the community respond proactively and effectively to the evolving nature of any crisis or challenge. This means that they must be in a position to rapidly connect the latest priorities and actions at a national / state level with the specific responses at the community / ecosystem level.

These response enablers may also act as a link between communities and the health-system if the crisis goes out of hand.

Beyond the immediate health crisis, response enablers begin to play the role of resilience builders in the community.  

They now become the bridge between communities and government to ensure rapid return to normalcy and positive growth. This means providing the communities with solutions, models of dealing with the crisis in a manner appropriate to the particular needs of the community, and helping them with access to right services for necessary help.

This group effectively acts as the ‘configurator’ who translates the governments’ multi-pronged support into appropriate solutions for the community.


Building capacity to respond in communities means going beyond the polarities of institution and individual and tapping again the power of communities which are underutilized in a crisis like this.  

As the argument above suggests, building capacity to respond in communities across the country will need to be an architected nation-wide intervention that can bring in an unmatched measure of agility, community level appropriateness and conscious development of resilience in communities. All of which, are missing when actions are government or individual driven.

This appears tough and impractical when the nation is in lockdown. But this is where digital communities through WhatsApp, etc. can help such ecosystems of response to take birth and begin to play their role.

The long-term payoff of this approach is that the corona crisis will help us consciously and systematically awaken a spirit of responsible citizenship across the country.

In addition to awakening responsible citizenship, this approach will help create a nation-wide community response platform. Such a platform will help the government: i) handle various kinds of crises impacting different communities ii) support and accelerate a range of development initiatives involving a direct participation by the people of this country.

Related Readings

This article is part of an ongoing series of articles on the Coronavirus crisis. Here are the links:

Part 1 – Corona and the limits of the current paradigm

Part 2 – Fighting Covid: the missing link

Part 3 – Beyond Social Distancing & Lockdowns: It’s time to harness ‘Capacity to Respond’ in our communities

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *