COVID-19 is a reminder that civil society is vital to the defence of our collective well-being

This article was originally published on Revista da Plataforma Portuguesa das ONGD

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By Lysa John
Secretary-General, CIVICUS

Covid-19 victims dying in hospital corridors and on the streets of Guayaquil, Ecuador. Starving community members queueing for kilometres for food parcels in Tshwane, South Africa. Millions thrown into unemployment around the world. Not since World War 2 has the world experienced a calamity that has disrupted every facet of life as fast and fundamentally as Covid-19. And never before has civil society had as little preparation to negotiate a catastrophe of this magnitude.

Governments have acted with varying degrees of urgency and efficiency, but most have introduced emergency laws restricting freedom of movement and enforcing lockdowns to flatten the curve. States have had to abide by their fundamental duty to protect people’s lives through lockdowns, but need to balance this with adequate economic and social safety nets to help those most affected by lockdown measures – something many have failed to do.

Few dispute the need for social distancing and travel clampdowns. Such restrictions, however, must be legal and non-discriminatory, and necessary to protect public health. Yet regimes across the world have used Covid-19 measures as tools to cross the line between protecting their citizens and stifling freedom of speech and violating human rights for political or autocratic reasons. More than ever, it’s up to civil society to ensure checks and balances, to call out injustice and assist the marginalised.

Civic space violations and challenges

The enormity and urgency of the Covid-19 catastrophe mean non-governmental, activist and aid organisations are scrambling to meet unprecedented levels of need.

China’s initial censorship helped spread the virus. Social media users, bloggers, activists and journalists have been muzzled, detained, summoned or even assaulted for spreading information about the virus or criticising authorities in countries such as Vietnam, Iran, Niger, Kenya, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Police in Pakistan are reported to have arrested medical staff protesting about a lack of personal protective equipment, while security forces have been accused of using excessive force or degrading citizens breaking lockdowns in the Philippines, South Africa, Kenya and elsewhere.

Activities such as these have made action on the pandemic harder, and have made it more difficult for people to protect themselves and their families, while allowing disinformation to thrive.

National lockdowns have also had unintended, potentially deadly consequences. UN Women has warned of domestic violence increasing as victims are locked down with abusive partners – leading to a “shadow pandemic”. Six months of lockdown could lead to an additional 31-million cases of gender-based violence, according to an analysis by the United Nations Population Fund, in collaboration with Avenir Health, Johns Hopkins University and Australia’s Victoria University.

Last month, in April 2020, more than 600 organisations called on world leaders not to use the pandemic as a pretext to restrict civic space.

Civil society at the forefront

How is civil society responding to this extraordinary time in history?

Community organisations are distributing food and delivering aid to people unable to work or earn during lockdowns. Groups are raising money for emergency relief, medical supplies and personal protective equipment for health workers. In India, NGOs have reportedly outperformed state governments in providing humanitarian relief to stranded migrant labourers and the poor in 13 states.

Beyond relief efforts, rights groups are holding authorities to account. In Zimbabwe, the advocacy group Lawyers for Human Rights secured an urgent application to stop abuses by the country’s security forces.

Organised activities by civil society have been supported by informal civic action. In Brazil, citizens have voiced their anger at President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic by banging pots and pans on their balconies.

The virus can affect anyone, but its consequences shine a light on existing inequalities. In highly developed Singapore, migrant workers housed in overcrowded dormitories have borne the brunt of the pandemic, making up around 85% of the city state’s more than 16 000 Covid-19 cases by 1 May. Civic groups were instrumental in highlighting this dire situation. 

The G-20 and International Monetary Fund have promised debt suspensions for poor countries, enabling states to reroute resources to healthcare and poverty relief, but these are short-term measures. Recognising that the crisis presents an opportunity to negotiate permanent reforms to international finance institutions’ approaches to debt, civil society groups are ensuring this outcome remains central to the international response.

In spite of social distancing, the pandemic has brought people together. In mid-April, global citizens and artists proved the power of social action when the One World: Together at Home virtual concert raised almost $128-million to support frontline healthcare workers in the fight against Covid-19.

Stronger together

The development sector was unprepared for a calamity of this magnitude. It has compelled us to reflect on the fragility of our support systems, to address this and to present an opportunity for a permanent shift in working towards a more resilient future.

Women make up nearly 70% of the workforce in our sector, but are heavily under-represented in its leadership. As resources shrink, they will be the first to lose their livelihoods, while having a painfully small say in the decisions their organisations make to tide this crisis. We must be bolder in adopting the social security measures we demand from governments and businesses.

Without trust and authenticity, our organisations cannot withstand the formidable challenges that all agencies – large and small – will need to respond to in coming years. It is remarkable that local organisations from the global south have been the first to embrace the Covid-19 Social Security Protocol, developed in line with the International Labour Organization’s Covid-19 policy framework.

Four years after the international community committed to the “localisation agenda”, the percentage of official development assistance directly reaching the southern civil society remains at the same level: less than 1%. This means that while community organisations are best placed to provide a sustained response to complex crises like pandemics, they remain pitifully under-resourced. To emerge stronger, we need to significantly increase investments in civil society organisations in the global south.

An enabling infrastructure for local organisations will allow us to harness the people-powered solutions we need to negotiate the complex, unexpected challenges of Covid-19.

Finally, civil society must significantly upscale strategies to put human rights at the heart of public interventions. We need a serious effort to dismantle systems that perpetuate cycles of poverty, discrimination and violence, including rethinking how our economies are structured and ensuring sustainable means of production and consumption that allow for the regeneration of natural resources.

Our most important indicator of shared progress must be the transformations needed to make the world fit for future generations. We need to recognise those in frontline roles, who are often the least valued in society but who will get us through this pandemic. 

The degree to which we commit ourselves to achieving these reforms will determine our future relevance as civil society.