An Uplifting Account of Civil Society Responses to Covid

November 10, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

A couple of posts to whet your appetite for our seminar on Thursday on ‘Emergent Agency in a time of Covid-19’.

Last week Civicus, the global network of civil society organizations (CSOs) published an excellent report on ‘Solidarity in the Time of Covid-19’. It’s an upbeat 60 page snapshot of a vast amount of CSO activity around the world – well worth browsing through the hundreds of examples or reading in its entirety.

The report makes a strong case for civil society to be seen as an essential part of the response ‘as a trusted partner, enabler and defender of communities and excluded groups; as a valued source of support, advice and information; as an essential corrective to state and market failures; as a determined advocate for better policies that reach communities, meet people’s needs and uphold rights; and as a vital source of accountability over state and private sector decisions and safeguard against corruption.’

Civicus groups the responses under a series of headings broadly similar to the ones we used for the briefing for this Thursday’s webinar on ‘emergent agency in a time of Covid’. Here they are + some extracts on each:

Meeting Essential Needs

‘In Malaysia, a range of civil society bodies – including the pro-democracy Bersih coalition, the Malaysian Trade Union Congress and a range of migrant and refugee community groups – mobilised to provide food to migrant workers, many of whom lost their only source of income and were left out of state support schemes, particularly when they lacked documentation.’

‘Faith institutions also play an important part. In the USA, United Sikhs tapped into faith practices, repurposing the large communal kitchens of Sikh temples to provide essential meals to those in need, including older people shielding at home and those unable to afford food, with people able to request help through a dedicated hotline and website. Sikh temples also provided food and water to people taking part in Black Lives Matter protests, connecting with churches to do so.’

Sharing Information

‘In working to spread accurate information and combat misinformation, civil society often faced attempts by states to control narratives and flows of information. As journalists sought to report independently and people criticised state responses to outbreaks, crackdowns on the freedom of expression came in response from numerous countries around the world, including in Cambodia, Cuba and Niger. Newly introduced laws and punishments for spreading alleged ‘fake news’, including in Bulgaria, Egypt and Kyrgyzstan, were the tools of choice of many states.’

Social Good Brasil

Providing Services Remotely

‘the pandemic meant quickly learning, embracing and rolling out new online-first forms of organising and mobilising, particularly as many CSO staff switched to working from home for prolonged periods. This could mean more than just the adoption of online meeting and webinar platforms. As work transferred to online spaces, it potentially opened up new channels for CSOs to engage and listen, which had the potential to challenge conventional ways of working and thinking.’

Monitoring and Defending Human Rights

‘Rights violations flourished under emergency conditions. In several countries, including India, Kenya and the Philippines, punishments for breaching emergency regulations were severe and brutal, patterning onto existing practices of repression. In Nigeria and Rwanda, lockdown enforcement was associated with an increase in police brutality, including cases of assault, GBV, torture and murder. In Peru a law was passed to exempt police and military officers from any criminal responsibility for deaths and injuries they might cause while enforcing emergency measures.’

Influencing and Engaging with States

‘Civil society worked to engage with and influence state institutions, reminding them of the need to uphold constitutional guarantees of rights and make any restrictions on freedoms legal, evidence-based, proportionate, non-discriminatory, time-bound and solely for the purposes of protecting public health. Civil society strived to resist state power grabs, crackdowns on rights and restrictions that targeted the rights of particular groups, and to ensure that states respected and upheld the rights of excluded groups.’

Crusaders for Environmental Protection

Using the Legal System

‘In Argentina, wealthier families could take devices and stable internet connections for granted, but [the move online] threatened to lock less privileged students out of education. Civil society successfully filed a lawsuit to prevent this happening, obliging the government of Buenos Aires to provide a laptop, notebook, or tablet to any student in the public education system in receipt of welfare, subsidies, or a scholarship, or living in a slum.’

Public Campaigning

‘In Brazil, a coalition of over 160 CSOs campaigned for the introduction of an emergency basic income during the pandemic. Winning the support of over half a million people and recruiting key social media influencers, within 10 days of the campaign’s launch, a law approving the scheme was approved; a further 10 days later, people were receiving their first payments.’


‘Around the world, balconies became key spaces for communicating protest solidarity, as well as appreciation for frontline workers, a practice that began in Spain and spread across the world. In Serbia, what started in March as a nightly cheer for health workers became an anti-authoritarian protest.’

Resource Centre For Gender Equality - Lebanon

Nurturing Community Leadership

‘CSOs understood that while they had a vital role to play, responses would be more effective and better serve local needs if they involved and empowered community leaders and volunteers, by investing in community leadership and volunteering.’

Helping Each Other

‘People turned to CSOs with an expectation that they would provide essential help and defend their rights. In some contexts, these expectations were reflected in increased membership of civil society groups. Student associations in the Netherlands saw a sharp increase in new members, even though much student activity moved online during the pandemic. Several countries saw a growth in trade union membership, as people showed renewed interest in collective action to defend labour rights.’

For anyone trying to understand the grassroots politics of the pandemic, this is an incredibly useful (as well as inspiring) resource. It really helps build the database for our Emergent Agency project. As well as sharing lessons and inspiration, it also allows us to start asking longer term questions about the legacy of Covid, both in terms of civil society organization, and its role in wider political life. Please come along on Thursday to discuss!

November 10, 2020
Duncan Green