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On the frontline and the front foot: global civil society's heroic Covid response

 

States must partner with campaign groups as the second wave of Covid-19 hits, says Civicus

Civil society has provided an indispensable and life-saving spine in the global fightback against Covid-19.

Charities, NGOs, campaigns groups and activists have all played a heroic role in both the frontline response and in defending the rights of people across the world whose lives have become more precarious under the hammer blows of poverty, oppression and the pandemic.

A new report by global civil society alliance Civicus, Solidarity in the Time of Covid-19, highlights this and calls on states to work with civil society to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus and create a better world. 

Drawing on interviews with activists and leaders, Civicus’s report outlines the many ways they have responded to the crisis.

Civil society took on the crucial role of providing essential services when there were gaps in healthcare provision and psychological support and civil society organisations (CSOs) provided food, personal protection equipment (PPE) and essential sanitary items, often filling the void when states were slow to respond. 

They 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.

Mandeep Tiwana, chief programmes officer at Civicus, said: “Often civil society responded when others failed to act, working to fill gaps left by states and businesses. In country after country, a diverse range of civil society groups scrambled to meet the needs of communities most affected by the crisis.

“In the face of these challenges, 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, including food, healthcare, information and cash support, to help sustain communities. At the same time, their role in curbing corruption and exercising oversight over the use of public resources remained crucial.”

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, while LGBT+ people, migrants and other minority groups were smeared as sources of infection. Civil society rose to the challenge, campaigning for policies to protect excluded groups and creating remote services to help vulnerable communities. 

In Mexico, for example, the National Network of Shelters expanded the staffing of its 24-hour helpline and provided extra assistance through social media. In Lebanon, the Resource Centre for Gender Equality secretly embedded a helpline number in online videos to reach more women at risk from domestic violence.  

When states partnered with civil society, or when governments created an enabling environment for the work of CSOs, the response to the spread of Covid-19 was much more effective. This was highlighted in Somalia, where Action Against Hunger successfully partnered with the ministry of health to promote awareness about the pandemic, using social media and other communication channels to reach vulnerable and excluded groups. Social Good Brasil, a Brazilian human rights group focusing on technology, boosted statistical evidence on Covid-19 by connecting data scientists with public officials.

Tiwana said: “Lessons need to be learnt from how governments managed the first wave of Covid-19. As many countries prepare for the second wave, one thing is clear: in all future responses states should recognise the value of civil society, and work to enable and partner with it. Doing so will lead to more joined-up and effective responses that respect rights,” said Tiwana. 

“The hard lessons must be learned from the mistakes made under the Covid-19 pandemic to equip the world for the next series of challenges to come. We cannot go back to business as usual.”

 

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