Two years of the pandemic: how civil society made the difference
11 March 2022 marks two years since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 to be a pandemic. Over those two years, civil society has continually mobilised to help those most in need, defend rights and advocate for fairer policies. Two years on, civil society reflects on some of the key lessons from pandemic response. Civil society’s pandemic experience is informing calls for a post-pandemic recovery that addresses inequality and advances social justice, and for a better response to the climate crisis and future global health crises. Governments and businesses need to recognise civil society’s central role in crisis response and develop new partnerships to enable and empower it.
On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that COVID-19 had reached pandemic status. By that time the virus had long outgrown its origins in China. It was ravaging Iran and Italy, and stretching towards the rest of the world. Soon almost no country would stay untouched.
Two years on, few people’s lives have not in some way been marked by the experience of living under the pandemic. The costs of the crisis are measured, first and foremost, in lives lost: WHO statistics record a devastating toll of over 6 million deaths worldwide, and this is likely to be an underestimate. Many others have experienced serious physical and mental health impacts. Beyond that, the crisis has impacted on economies, social structures, civic space and people’s access to rights.
Civil society was at the forefront of the response to this global emergency. As our 2020 special report, Solidarity in the time of COVID-19, documented, when the pandemic swept the world, civil society stepped up to make a difference. Existing civil society organisations (CSOs) repurposed themselves overnight, deploying their skills and capacities to serve communities and excluded groups most affected by the pandemic’s impacts. New community-level initiatives quickly sprang up. Trust in civil society and civil society’s closeness to communities were vital assets in responding, allowing civil society to reach people and places governments were leaving behind.
During the two years of the pandemic, civil society has been a source of vital support, advice and information, a guardian of human rights, an enabler and defender of communities, a determined advocate for inclusive and rights-oriented policies, a corrective to state and market failures, a driver of sustained mobilisation, creativity and innovation, a trusted partner and an essential guarantor of accountability over state and private sector decisions. Without civil society, people’s experience of the pandemic would have been so much worse.
Two years on, we went back to some of the civil society activists and groups featured in our 2020 report to ask what they have done since to respond to the evolving pandemic, and what they have learned over the past two years.
Need to address continuing exclusion
Since the early days of the pandemic, it’s been clear that while anyone can catch the virus, nothing else about it is equal. Two years on, it continues to be the most excluded groups – including women, LGBTQI+ people, ethnic minorities, migrants and refugees, people with disabilities and lower-income groups – who have been affected the most.
Poverty, income inequality and precarious livelihoods greatly increase people’s risk of contracting the virus and experiencing harsher impacts, because people are less able to isolate, work from home or take time off sick. Poorer people live in more crowded conditions and may lack access to sanitation. Measures to limit viral spread that have paused or slowed down economic activity and restricted freedom of movement have impacted most on those whose livelihoods most rely on daily labour or informal work. LGBTQI+ people and migrants and refugees have been victims of disinformation and hate speech, slurred as sources of infection.
The effects are greater for groups that are already marginalised such as women, people with disabilities, refugees and LGBTQI+ people.
In every country, civil society groups that responded to our questions – in 2020 and again in 2022 – persistently made the point that women were exposed to a vastly increased risk of gender-based violence when lockdowns forced them to stay at home with violent partners, and made more vulnerable to early marriage and pregnancy. They made clear that women experienced a disproportionate burden of increased household duties, including as emergency providers of childcare and education when schools were closed. They emphasised that it was women who most saw their livelihoods under stress, since they are overwhelmingly in informal employment.
Globally, a massive vaccine inequality persists between triply-vaccinated global north populations and many in the global south still waiting for their first shot: almost three billion don’t have any kind of COVID-19 immunisation.
Policy-makers have had two years to absorb these lessons, but they haven’t learned much. Blanket policies have failed to take account of the pandemic’s differentiated impacts on the most excluded groups. Social support schemes failed to reach the most vulnerable people, or privileged some, such as men as heads of households, while penalising others, such as migrants and refugees.
For two long years, civil society has stepped into this gap, providing direct support to those most in need – but also working to make the invisible visible and advocating for policy change so societies will be better prepared for the next global crisis.
Voices from the frontline
Michael Kaiyatsa of the Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, a CSO that promotes democracy and human rights in Malawi, outlines the pandemic’s impacts on women and LGBTQI+ people, among others, and his organisation’s work to respond:
The effects are greater for groups that are already marginalised such as women, people with disabilities, refugees and LGBTQI+ people. It is clear that this pandemic has deepened the human rights violations these groups were already facing. For instance, we have witnessed an increase in cases of homophobic and transphobic attacks, particularly in our refugee camp, as well as an increase in cases of sexual and gender-based violence in general.
In response, we are adapting our work to respond to these new challenges – both now and in the long-term – while ensuring that we continue to work towards our vision of a Malawi society that embraces human rights and democracy. For instance, noting livelihood challenges that women living with HIV/AIDS are facing, we have included a livelihood support component in our project targeting groups of women living with HIV/AIDS. We have also included security and livelihood support for our community of LGBQTI+ refugees that we are supporting at Dzaleka Refugee Camp.
Alyaa Al Ansari of Bent Al-Rafedain Organisation, an Iraqi feminist CSO that works to ensure the protection of women and children and promotes women’s integration in all spheres of society, highlights the impacts on women:
The pandemic has affected many different groups of Iraqi society, but women and girls have been the most affected of all. Since before the pandemic, Iraqi women were socially compelled to have the biggest share of care responsibilities within their families: they are the main caregivers for children and older people. When a full lockdown was imposed in Iraq for four months, these responsibilities grew even more.
Many women were financially affected as the pandemic swept away countless businesses, including hotels, restaurants and shops, because they lost their jobs in the private sector. Without a stable income, their families suffered, particularly when they were the family’s main breadwinner.
Another dramatic effect of the full lockdown was the spike in domestic violence. For four long months, abused women had no way out. They had to continue to live under the same roof as their abusers. There were more femicides and more attempted suicides were reported as some women could not bear the pressure and the violence they were subjected to.
During the pandemic, civil society efforts focused on providing humanitarian aid to affected women and their families. Charity organisations covered essential needs of poor families and helped women who lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
As for feminist CSOs, some set up online programmes to provide psychological support. Other organisations shifted their face-to-face activities online and took to social media platforms such as Facebook to reach women who had to stay at home for unusually long periods.
Amali Tower of Climate Refugees, which defends the rights of people displaced and forced to migrate due to climate change, draws parallels between the impacts of the pandemic emergency and those of the climate crisis:
Inequality, poverty and the vulnerabilities that underpin migration have grown exponentially during these two years to situations of distress migration. The inequality of vaccine distribution is an example of how the world responds to an issue that ‘affects us all’. This should inform us of how the world is responding to climate change, another issue the west and global north countries like to posit as an existential threat to us all.
As has always been the case, frontline communities in wars, crises, climate change get on with surviving, and these two years have shown us ample positive examples yet again that we’ve tried our best to amplify, support and facilitate with stories, connections, conversations and policy inputs that demonstrate how systemic socio-economic inequality, rooted in colonialism, is still very much a reality for much of the world.
Changed ways of working
New ways of working had to be developed to meet urgent needs and defend rights in a changed world that offered limited opportunities for face-to-face interaction. Civil society groups had to quickly move key actions online and switch to remote working. Many set up new phone lines and online tools to keep serving communities in need.
For some, the pandemic forced rapid innovation, leading to novel ways of working that will have sustained value. Looking ahead, many CSOs are planning a long-term blend of the more conventional approaches they took before the pandemic and the new methods they’ve adopted since. Those that work internationally see a future in which they fly less and hold more online meetings – not just to limit the climate impact of air travel, but also to take advantage of the inclusion potential of the online tools they’ve come to use.
The pandemic has marked a before and after in the way we not only work but also interact, build and create intervention and organisational strategies.
However, adaptation has brought challenges. There are contexts, particularly in the global south, where communities don’t have access to the technologies and skills required. Exclusion is multidimensional, so excluded groups are also likely to experience digital exclusion. A switch to online activity can therefore inadvertently reinforce patterns of exclusion.
Change has also put civil society to the test. Many working from home have faced new challenges of maintaining work-life balance, which particularly affect a female workforce not immune from the broader social realities of being expected to take on a disproportionate share of childcare and household work. The danger of burnout has been ever-present. Civil society made efforts to develop protocols to protect staff, not just from the risk of catching COVID-19, but also from the pandemic’s social and economic impacts.
Voices from the frontline
An activist from Burundi, who asked to stay anonymous for security reasons, described the negative impacts of the pandemic on their organisation’s ways of working:
The pandemic has had negative effects on the way people used to interact as in many circumstances, physical contacts were reduced. Working with people using technology – such as Zoom meetings, phone calls or emails – does not help to get a real view of what happens on the ground. It has also hindered those who cannot afford the technological tools of communication from accessing needed information.
COVID-19 has also restricted people from traveling. Field work was almost stopped and international partners could not conduct their missions to evaluate the field work of their local partners.
Wendy Figueroa of the National Network of Shelters, a Mexican network that brings together 69 centres dedicated to the prevention, care and protection of victims of family and gender-based violence, highlights both the successes and challenges of the transition to more online ways of working:
The pandemic has marked a before and after in the way we not only work but also interact, build and create intervention and organisational strategies. In some ways it has strengthened our actions: for instance, the use of digital platforms has allowed us to keep in touch nationally and internationally, sharing knowledge, concerns and strategies.
But there has also been an overload of activities and our personal time has been blurred as we work from our home offices, with a very thin line separating countless virtual meetings and multiple searches for funding to continue our work and address the impacts of the pandemic.
Tsubasa Yuki of the Moyai Support Centre for Independent Living, a CSO that supports homeless people in Tokyo, Japan, offers an example of an online scheme launched in response to the pandemic, which had the effect of extending the organisation’s reach:
In 2021, we launched an online supporting system called ‘COMPASS’, which is composed of a chat system, a reference system that supports people finding public welfare services and an online service that helps people to complete an application sheet for public assistance. As the influence of pandemic is not limited to Tokyo but prevalent across the nation, we thought we need online services accessible from everywhere.
Key lessons learned
Emergencies like the pandemic offer opportunities for learning – on how to prepare for and respond to the future pandemics that seem inevitable in our highly connected world, and also for other current and coming emergencies: not least the climate crisis and conflicts – including in Ukraine, but also those in Ethiopia, Syria, Yemen and across the Sahel.
It’s important for civil society to reflect on our own practice and think about what we might have done differently had we known two years ago what we know now. We need to learn the lessons and share the learning – and encourage others, including governments, businesses and the international community, to also reflect and learn. Civil society’s donors, for example, need to learn the lesson that flexible funding and quick decision-making are essential to enable civil society to respond rapidly to crises.
The pandemic conditioned the way we plan our actions. It confirmed the need to be flexible in the face of what the situation demands, both in terms of the issues that affect the disadvantaged communities we work with, and the advocacy strategies required to respond to inequalities.
Throughout the pandemic, the sentiment expressed time and again by civil society has been that we should not merely return to the world as it was before the pandemic – because there were too many things wrong with that world. The pandemic shed light on and exacerbated deep pre-existing inequalities in economic, social and political power – but it didn’t create them. Going back to the old normal would mean that all the hardships and sacrifices people – particularly people from excluded groups – endured during the pandemic would have been for nothing.
Civil society continues to call for pandemic recovery plans that seize on the disruption of the pandemic as an opportunity for progressive change. They want to see the great injustices of our time addressed – structural inequality, the denial of rights, the failure of governments and the private sector to take adequate action in the face of the climate crisis.
So far, the opportunity is being missed: an analysis of the pandemic recovery plans of G20 nations shows that only 6 per cent of spending has gone to actions consistent with the idea of a ‘green recovery’. Governments and the private sector need to hear the voices of civil society more. Given civil society’s vital role in responding to the pandemic and supporting communities, it’s time for a new relationship with civil society, based on enabling rather than restricting civic space.
Voices from the frontline
Elif Ege of Mor Çatı, which runs the only independent women’s shelter in Turkey, shares the lessons learned and the advocacy needs identified:
We have learned that it is vital that the mechanisms created to tackle violence against women should be prepared for any kind of emergencies ahead of time. During the pandemic the public support and preventive mechanisms – including law enforcement, violence prevention centres, social services, family courts and bar associations – and municipalities’ support services – solidarity centres, social services and shelters – were not prepared for this type of an experience at all.
Women were left without any support in their struggle against violence. Considering that in Turkey the discrepancy between the law and its implementation has been growing for decades now and bad practices are very common and go unpunished, this was not a completely new experience for us. However the pandemic deepened the intensity of this issue.
Therefore, it is very important for us, independent women’s and feminist organisations, to pressure the responsible institutions to implement the law, prevent bad practices and to create and implement emergency action plans.
Sebastián Pilo of Civil Association for Equality and Justice (ACIJ), a CSO dedicated to defending the rights of the most disadvantaged groups and strengthening democracy in Argentina, highlights the need for ongoing reflection, learning and adjustment as the pandemic progressed:
Lockdowns taught us lessons about the ways in which those of us who work for ACIJ can connect with each other. The second year of the pandemic was particularly challenging because we had the lessons learned from the previous year and it was time to structure them in order to shape a new way of working, in a context of generalised fatigue with the situation we were experiencing; but at the same time, the end of the pandemic had not yet materialised, which implied a situation of constant progress and setbacks in the implementation of a new model.
We learned – and continue to learn – about virtual work and have been experiencing a transition from our fully face-to-face working model to a hybrid model, taking advantage of the opportunities of each.
While we continue to learn about the power and effectiveness of our advocacy actions in the tension between face-to-face and virtual work, our goal is to adopt a model that allows us to think collectively and creatively about the responses civil society can give to the growing and deepening inequalities suffered by the communities we work with, on the way to defining what kind of organisation we will be in the medium term, based on the shock that our work experienced due to the pandemic.
The pandemic conditioned the way we plan our actions. It confirmed the need to be flexible in the face of what the situation demands, both in terms of the issues that affect the disadvantaged communities we work with, and in terms of the advocacy strategies required to respond to these inequalities.
Owen Tudor of the International Trade Union Confederation is looking ahead to the next emergency and distilling the policy lessons that need to be acted on now to mitigate the experience of future crises:
As the way the world operates continues to degrade the environment, we know that there will be more pandemics, in an intertwined existential threat that also promotes global tensions that are leading increasingly to military solutions, closed borders and shrinking space for civil society and democracy. Measures to prevent the next pandemic being even worse than COVID-19 will include more resources for quality public health services, greater investment in the care economy and making health and safety at workplaces a fundamental human right.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
Governments should partner with civil society to develop and implement pandemic recovery plans that address the injustices and inequalities highlighted and deepened by the pandemic.
Donors should support the development of the kind of flexible and adaptive civil society capacities that enabled effective pandemic response.
CSOs should continue to explore hybrid ways of working that harness the strengths of both conventional approaches and new methods developed during the pandemic.
With thanks to all the interviewees whose inputs informed this piece: anonymous civil society activist, Burundi; Gala Díaz Langou, Center for the Implementation of Public Policies for Equity and Growth, Argentina; Elif Ege, Mor Çatı, Turkey; Wendy Figueroa, National Network of Shelters, Mexico; Michael Kaiyatsa, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Malawi; Krisztina Kolos Orbán, Transvanilla Transgender Association, Hungary; Sebastián Pilo, Civil Association for Equality and Justice, Argentina; Amali Tower, Climate Refugees; Owen Tudor, International Trade Union Confederation; Tsubasa Yuki, Moyai Support Centre for Independent Living, Japan. All interview quotations are edited extracts.
Cover photo by Tamara Merino/Bloomberg via Getty Images