Health and Healthcare Systems

Collective action could fuel a post-pandemic renaissance for social justice. Here's how

A demonstrator wearing a face mask takes part in a protest of technicians and engineers working in the entertainment sector, urging the Belgian government to help the sector suffering from the lockdown during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Brussels, Belgium  June 18, 2020. REUTERS/Yves Herman - RC2NBH92EVSO

The Belgian entertainment industry protests to urge the government to protect the sector's workers during the coronavirus lockdown. Image: REUTERS/Yves Herman

Natalie Çilem
Community Specialist, Civil Society, World Economic Forum Geneva
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  • COVID-19 is highlighting existing cracks in the system for the world’s most vulnerable populations.
  • A renewed urgency and impetus for community mobilization could fuel a post-pandemic renaissance for social justice.

From Future Fridays to anti-government protests and employee-mobilization efforts, 2019 was a notable year in global collective action. This energy has carried into 2020 and gained strength and momentum as the universal challenges and urgency of COVID-19 have galvanized both likely and unlikely actors to mobilize and support their communities.

Perhaps most critically, COVID-19 has surfaced many of the structural and institutional inequalities that “civil society” – NGOs, labour and religious leaders and faith-based organizations, for example – have been challenging for decades. Almost six months into a new COVID-19 world, civil society actors are leading widespread mobilization efforts for equality, justice and a new social contract for workers.

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The fundamentals of community mobilization have remained largely the same over time, but the tactics are changing to adapt to the current pandemic landscape.

We have seen online campaigns for grocery drops, tech assistance, childcare and financial support occurring over google docs. Mutual aid platforms are springing up across the world, and the US has seen one of the largest social mobilization efforts in its history, with many protesters wearing face masks and community organizers sharing hand sanitizers to decrease the risk of coronavirus transmission.

Community mobilization is surging worldwide and these collective efforts are now at the centre of the global agenda. Here are three issues addressed by civil society that highlight mid-pandemic community mobilization tactics for a post-pandemic renaissance.

1. Equality and justice

As the world begins to see the grave social and economic impacts of COVID-19 on poor and vulnerable populations, the need to address underlying inequalities and disparities is becoming increasingly urgent.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 has exacerbated and increased poverty, gender disparities and racial injustice. Oxfam suggests that up to half a billion of the world’s population is at risk of poverty as a result of COVID-19. Meanwhile, women and girls are suffering the consequences of lockdowns as reports of increased rates of gender-based violence, economic uncertainty and decreasing access to education are growing worldwide.

In the US, Black Americans are dying from COVID-19 at a rate three times that of white populations. These statistics indicate that the cracks in the system have long existed; however, the scale and scope is only now being seen in earnest.

In response to growing inequality and injustices, civil society has organized to support communities during this time of uncertainty while also protesting the systems that have shaped these outcomes.

  • In the UK, a group of civil society organizations wrote a joint letter to the government demanding action on the gendered impacts of COVID-19, highlighting underlying issues of gender-based violence in the country.
  • In Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, the world’s largest refugee camp, women refugees are mobilizing to raise awareness about COVID-19. This campaign was organized in an effort to prevent the virus from spreading throughout the refugee camp, which is notably overcrowded and lacks a health infrastructure to support a high number of coronavirus cases.
  • In the US, communities are organizing on a historical level against racial inequality. Spurred by police violence, and compounded by COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black communities,these protests have sparked global marches for racial justice.
2. Worker rights

COVID-19 has illustrated the precariousness of labour in the 21st century. While some industries continue to lay off workers due to a looming economic depression, others continue to grow amidst the pandemic.

Workers, however, remain vulnerable, whether they are facing unemployment or exposure to health risks at their jobs. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has called for a New Social Contract to address these disparities in the workplace and to ensure protection and employment for all. This is echoed by voices from the business and human rights world, which are calling on corporations to better protect workers both during this uncertain time and moving forward.

Although most forms of in-person direct action and demonstrations were curbed with stay-at-home orders early in the pandemic, frontline workers continued to use traditional methods of direct action to mobilize for change.

  • Trade unions like ITUC are working with frontline workers to ensure they have access to PPE, paid sick leave, or free healthcare among other social protections.
  • In India, the Self-Employed Women’s Association ( SEWA) has mobilized to support migrants and women working in the informal sector through various social protection advocacy campaigns. SEWA has also led COVID-19 awareness campaigns for their members and organized a re-skilling programme for women who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo, mine workers issued a letter to mining companies demanding increased labour protections for workers during the COVID-19 outbreak.
  • In Brazil, out-of-work domestic workers are organizing and demanding a paid quarantine.
Image: Civicus
3. Technology activism

Debates around technology governance and justice have been ongoing for decades, as issues of surveillance, privacy and suppression of activist and citizen voices have grown increasingly important with the ubiquity and proliferation of new technology.

COVID-19 has ushered in a new moment of tech activism, which has moved beyond smaller tech and human rights circles to broader swathes of society as concerns of digital surveillance affects nearly every “connected” person on the planet with the rise of contact tracing apps.

Civil society organizations, which have been leading mobilization efforts around tech, human rights and social justice for decades continue to organize and call for stronger data rights and social justice in tech during COVID-19.

  • As access to technology becomes increasingly understood to be a basic right, TechSoup has mobilized a COVID-19 Response Fund to provide grassroots civil society organizations with the critical technology needed to ensure they continue their programming work throughout the pandemic.
  • Access Now has organized multiple tech and human rights campaigns including efforts to stop the spread of misinformation around COVID-19, increasing access to broadband internet and ensuring access to the internet for all during the pandemic.
  • Major technology companies have been working to develop and deploy contact tracing and facial recognition apps during the pandemic, increasing risks to data rights around the world. Campaigns to halt the use of facial recognition have already been successful in some cases.
  • Internal employee mobilization efforts in the tech sector are on the rise as political landscapes becomes increasingly strained during the pandemic. With work from home orders, employees are staging virtual walkouts to protest company practices.
Organizing for and imagining a new future

COVID-19 presents an unparalleled set of challenges for the world and its most vulnerable communities, requiring collective action on a global scale.

Whether online or in the streets, everyday citizens and civil society are feeling empowered to mobilize on a large scale. Perhaps most importantly, COVID-19 has led to a renewed sense of urgency to respond to underlying and systemic inequalities and injustices and reminds us that crises tend to inspire citizens to imagine new and collective solutions for society.

There is also an increased desire for stakeholder capitalism as workers demand a new social contract.

This moment of mass mobilization is inspiring a larger call for multistakeholder action to challenge global inequality, ensure a more just future for all (on and offline) and create a social contract that protects workers worldwide. It is also signaling that civil society is alive and well and ready to continue to take action.

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