Maverick Citizen Op-Ed
Civicus report documents how states need civil society as second wave of Covid-19 hits worldwide
Covid-19 has unleashed a multi-dimensional, once-in-a-generation crisis. As the virus swept the globe, civil society organisations played a key role in responding, helping those most in need, filling the gaps left by governments and businesses and keeping them accountable.
As multiple countries are experiencing a second wave of the coronavirus and others continue to live under the impacts of the first wave and emergency response measures, governments have lessons to learn.
They need to recognise the vital roles played by civil society in providing essential services and information, meeting the needs of excluded groups and defending rights. Governments must partner with civil society and further enable it to play its part.
A report released this week by Johannesburg-based global civil society alliance CIVICUS, titled “Solidarity in the Time of Covid-19”, highlights the irreplaceable role of activists, civil society organisations (CSOs) and grassroots organisations during the pandemic.
Across Africa, civil society responded rapidly to provide food and vital sanitary items to communities cut adrift by lockdown measures and help those whose livelihoods disappeared overnight. CSOs took on the crucial role of providing essential services when there were gaps in the provision of healthcare and psychological support.
Civil society also stepped in when official communication channels failed to give people accurate information about how to protect themselves and their families from Covid-19. By using creative methods, such as street art, and working in diverse languages, CSOs were able to disseminate important information to different communities that the state was unable or unwilling to reach.
In South Africa, there are many examples of civil society providing vital support during the pandemic.
In the townships of Cape Town, Ikamva Labantu mobilised to provide food and hygiene parcels to more than 1,000 older people. The Ndlovu Youth Choir worked to dispel myths and misunderstandings about Covid-19 and share basic health guidelines through their music. Another CSO, Grassroot, used WhatsApp to connect and train community organisers to lead a local response. Local people also started the Cape Town Together initiative to encourage neighbourhoods to self-organise and share essential supplies.
In country after country, across the continent and around the world, civil society adopted a “can-do” mindset, mounting a positive response characterised by flexibility, creativity and innovation. Even CSOs that normally prioritise advocacy for rights rapidly reoriented to providing essential supplies and services, to help sustain communities.
Civil society devoted a large part of its response to helping at-risk and excluded groups adversely affected by lockdowns and policies put in place by governments to curb the spread of Covid-19.
Locked indoors, women faced greater risk of gender-based violence, as did young LGBTQI+ people who were forced to go back to their families. Sexual minorities, migrants and refugees and ethnic or religious minority groups were often smeared as sources of infection and discriminated against when seeking help.
Civil society rose to the challenge, campaigning for policies to protect excluded groups and establishing remote services to help vulnerable communities.
Civil society also provided vital oversight over government spending decisions made in response to the crisis, seeking to expose corruption and inefficiency. In South Africa, for instance, the national branch of the International Budget Partnership and its partner CSOs supported residents of an informal settlement to monitor and report failures in the delivery of critical hygiene services. Also in South Africa, as in many other countries, civil society worked to hold police forces to account for human rights abuses while policing emergency restrictions.
Despite emergency conditions, people asserted their civil rights by protesting. In April, about 1,000 residents of Tafelsig East in Cape Town protested against local government failure to provide them with food parcels. In May, people near the Seraleng mining community in Rustenburg protested about the dire socio-economic situation they were placed in due to the pandemic. July saw protests against schools reopening. These and the many other protests showed that people needed to find ways, despite pandemic restrictions, to demand that their voices be heard and needs be met.
However, too often governments responded to the pandemic by further restricting civil society. Government after government sought to stop activists and journalists from providing accurate information on the virus and questioning the effectiveness of their response through “fake news” laws.
Protests, even when masked and distanced, were often brutally policed. Some governments passed emergency laws, giving them vast and unchecked powers, restricting rights that may be hard to claw back.
It needn’t be this way. Where governments partnered with civil society, and where states created an enabling environment for the work of CSOs, the response to the spread of Covid-19 was much more effective.
With Covid-19 still a current and pressing problem in so many countries, and with urgent debates pending on how post-pandemic reconstruction can lead to better and more just societies, the time is right for governments to open the door for civil society. DM/MC
Ines Pousadela is a senior research specialist and Andrew Firmin editor-in-chief at CIVICUS. CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world. CIVICUS has more than 10,000 members worldwide.
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