Artists Respond: Life in the Time of COVID-19

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As cases of COVID-19 rise around the region, life as we know it has been upended in many ways. Travel restrictions, new social norms, loss of work, tolls on mental health: we asked artists from around Southeast Asia to share their thoughts on these trying times.

Two people watching the news notice how the speakers are sitting apart from each other.
A man goes to a hawker centre and finds tape placed on alternate seats, to encourage sitting further apart.
At the stadium, cones on alternate tracks keep joggers far apart.
At the supermarket, crowds who are panic buying do not observe social distancing.

Social Distancing by James Tan

“I went to the stadium to do my morning jog and was surprised to see cones being placed on alternate tracks. A few other joggers were puzzled at them too. The authorities must have done that the night before. Yet I feel that in other ways, social distancing is done in an arbitrary manner.”

A comic about a freelance artist who decides to channel her energy into raising funds for medical staff.

Hilahang Lubid by Karla Circe

“In the midst of lockdowns, curfews, public dissatisfaction, and government fumbles, freelancers in the Philippines working on a ‘No Work, No Pay’ policy struggle with financial anxiety and doubt. Many still come forward using their skillsets to help the less fortunate, despite no certainty of help coming on their own. Tayo tayo lang din naman ang magtutulungan dito. In the end, all we’ve got is each other.”

Editor’s note: via the #ArtforMedPH hashtag on Twitter, artists are offering commissions and putting the funds towards supporting medical frontliners in the Philippines.

An ojek driver, construction worker, and street vendor

The Virus is Poverty by Kathrinna Rakhmavika

“During this pandemic, many Indonesians are still more afraid of poverty than the virus. On March 6, 2020, two online ojek (motorcycle taxi) drivers in Riau, who had been in close contact with a patient who tested positive for COVID-19, refused to be quarantined. The reason for this was that they wouldn’t be able to work and bring money home during their period of isolation. Most daily-paid laborers and informal workers such as street vendors cannot afford to stay at home and stop working, even with the disease spreading and their lives at stake.”

Editor’s note: to spread hope in this time of crisis, Kathrinna has made these motivational images free for all to use.

An illustration showing a healthcare worker leaving the house while children watch

Foundation by Mandy Chan

“My mother works as part of the office administration staff at one of the hospitals to receive the first wave of COVID-19 patients. As Malaysia started the Restriction Movement Order and people switched to working from home, my mother still has to leave for work every day to help support the hospital’s inner workings as they continue to fight the pandemic. I worry about her every day and it makes me think about those who have family working as doctors, nurses, and other front line jobs, those who are crucial to keeping our society from collapsing. How do they feel? Do they feel as worried as I do? Do they wonder if their loved ones are safe as well? And it makes me question if those who disregard the RMO think about them and their families at all.”

A comic about how society can help to flatten the curve of COVID-19 cases.

The Ride No One Wants to be On by Maya Schmidt

“Coming into 2020, I don’t think anyone could have imagined the exact impact COVID-19 would have on the entire world. It’s frustrating keeping up with the news because it seems like it’s constantly bad. However, just because the number of COVID-19 cases is going up, doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. We each have a part to play in beating this virus and we must practice our due diligence to keep each other safe.”

New Naratif is committed to the safety of our contributors, their families and loved ones, and the communities they cover. Read our statement on what we’re doing in the weeks to come.

If you are a freelance artist or creator, the following initiatives and resources may be of interest to you:

  • SINDIKASI’s call for data on affected freelancers/ gig workers in the creative economy (Indonesia)
  • Crowdsourced data on affected arts and culture work and opportunities (Malaysia)
  •, a listing of verified civil society initiatives for those who need help or wish to contribute help (Malaysia)
  • special survey on the effect of COVID-19 on the economy and individual, conducted by the Department of Statistics (Malaysia)
  • Crowdsourced data on losses for artists, cultural workers, and freelancers due to COVID-19-related cancellations (Philippines)
  • The National Arts Council’s measures for sustaining the arts (Singapore)
  • Crowdsourced data on the impact on the creative industry (Singapore)
  • General resources for freelancers (Global)

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