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How civil society is fighting back against coronavirus crackdowns

For some activist groups, the crisis has provided an opportunity to build their movements.

James Savage
24 June 2020, 2.55pm
Activists from the Kenyan organisation Muslims for Human Rights.
The Fund for Global Human Rights

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, a rogues’ gallery of emboldened authoritarians and tin-pot populists have used newly granted emergency powers to consolidate control, undermine human rights, and crack down on civil society. But could this insidious assault on fundamental freedoms backfire?

Activists and scholars have warned for years that civic space – the environment that enables citizens to organise, participate, and communicate openly – is under attack. And now, the coronavirus has unleashed “a parallel epidemic of authoritarian and repressive measures”, according to Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights. 

However, in some countries where civic space is under attack civil society remains vibrant and activism is flourishing as frontline, grassroots activists and local leaders adapt to the crisis. 

A surge in informal organising through mutual aid initiatives is opening new space for civic action at the local level, while more established civil society organisations have quickly pivoted to launch new programs tailored to the moment. 

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Some civic groups are tackling the threat of COVID-19 head-on, delivering essential services to affected communities and filling gaps in government responses. Caminando Fronteras, an organisation that supports migrants’ rights on either side of the Mediterranean, has made health kits and essential supplies available to migrants in Morocco who lack permanent housing or access to running water. 

In India, community groups operating in Assam have stepped up to provide dry ration supplies to tea plantation workers excluded from government assistance programs.

Beyond providing direct relief, activists are continuing to safeguard vital rights and fundamental freedoms – a challenging endeavor complicated by the shifting dynamics of the pandemic. 

Kenyan group Muslims for Human Rights recently sued the national government, after they learned that people quarantined in state hospitals were forced to pay for their own accommodation and food. Their public interest lawsuit contributed to a mounting public outcry, which forced the government to backtrack on the controversial policy.

In Nigeria, top civic watchdog Spaces for Change has adapted their digital platform to monitor government measures and document violence perpetrated or permitted by state agents in the context of COVID-19. The digital tracker collates reports from Nigeria’s 36 states and the West Africa subregion.

“The COVID-19 disease control measures at the federal and state levels have enormous potential for executive overreach,” says Victoria Ibezim-Ohaeri, the founder and director of Spaces for Change. “The approaches adopted across the country, especially by state governors, reinforces fears of deliberate governmental clampdowns on civic freedoms using COVID-19 as an excuse.”

“Social solidarity is the last line of defense.”

Recognising the need to adapt to this new operating environment, innovative activists are proactively working to rethink and reshape civic space for the “new normal” that will emerge from these turbulent times. 

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has militarised the pandemic response, attacked free speech and the independent media, and targeted government critics. In response, the artist-activist group Active Vista is preparing to launch a new program that takes bold steps to disrupt the populists’ violent and divisive narrative.

Active Vista’s initiative aims to articulate the abstract ideals of human rights work – democratic participation, the interdependency of community, and the possibility of progress benefitting all – as tangible solutions for the everyday economic, security, and health concerns of Filipinos navigating this crisis. In stark contrast to Duterte’s brutality and deprivation, the group’s vision centers kindness and humanity.

“When the pandemic is framed as a war, citizens are compelled to surrender their rights, freedoms, and dignity to survive,” says Active Vista Executive Director Leni Velasco-Bicol. “Social solidarity is the last line of defense. The crucial role of civil society is to nurture that solidarity, foster deepened connections, and cultivate transformative action.” 

Working with new allies outside the traditional human rights space – including artists, scientists, public health officials, and a national youth movement – Active Vista hopes to rally popular support for a post-pandemic agenda that is underwritten by Filipino civic values. They are drawing on customs such as bayanihan: people working together out of generosity to achieve a common goal; and pakikipagkapwa: a shared sense of identity and treating others with respect and dignity as an equal.

“The pandemic should be an opportunity for civil society and movements to reframe the way we present human rights,” Active Vista writes in a description of their new initiative.

Populists and authoritarians have waged a long – and often successful – campaign to delegitimize human rights work. But against all odds, civil society is continuing to hold the line against government overreach and state-sanctioned violence. 

The critical roles played by civil society in this pandemic is rallying popular support for civic participation and activism. Even traditionally hostile governments like India and China are relying more on collaboration with civil society to curb the spread of the virus and reach impacted people. 

As this pandemic reveals the depths of inequality across the globe, civil society has a chance to reclaim public perception of its value and, by demonstrating what civil society can achieve, mobilise popular support for future endeavors. This work is vital to address those systemic injustices brought to the fore by COVID-19.

With a concerted effort to sustain this momentum – and flexible, long-term support from funders and the international community – embattled local activists and advocates, and community-rooted social movements could emerge from this pandemic stronger than ever.

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