Ten days after Tunisia recorded its first case of COVID-19 in March, a bill was introduced in parliament to criminalize whatever officials deemed as disinformation about the pandemic on social media. The bill’s sponsors claimed it would safeguard “national law and order.” But social activists and journalists saw it as yet another attempt to restrict their work in a fragile democracy. Social media platforms exploded. Within hours the bill was withdrawn.
Something similar happened in Brazil. As the pandemic hit, activists banded together to counter President Jair Bolsonaro’s ongoing attempts to downplay the coronavirus. Armed with a hashtag, they are spreading accurate health information through the poorest communities on social media.
Across the globe, COVID-19 is rapidly weaving anew the tapestry of democratic activism. Groups widely known as civil society have been nimbly stepping in to bolster and keep watch over the government responses to the crisis. Some have partnered with state and local agencies to distribute food aid. Others are changing their missions almost overnight to distribute masks, address pandemic-specific human rights concerns, and expose corruption in COVID-related funding.
More than 400 civil society groups around the world have united to promote a comprehensive response from the United Nations, governments, and private donors. One specific request is for more funding to aid women and marginalized people. Other requests include safeguarding free speech and canceling national debts.
The pandemic along with the social distancing has forced nonprofits, community activists, and journalists to forge a new unity, especially via social media. The shift may be transformative and permanent, bringing new ideas for reform. Annie Theriault, chief investment officer of Grand Challenges Canada, a government-funded impact investing organization, told the online development community Devex, “Everyone is noticing that we can do things quite efficiently when we coordinate and support each other.”
This rethink of private activism now has an additional driver. The global backlash against police brutality in the United States following the death of George Floyd is galvanizing unity among groups. They are advocating reform in law enforcement, addressing racism, and rebuilding minority communities.
Civil society is a broad term, ranging from human rights activists to charity groups to civic-minded bloggers. In stable democracies they function as a loyal opposition – sometimes partnering with governments, sometimes holding them to account. Under more authoritarian systems, they are often targets of repression.
Yet their initiatives help bind almost all aspects of society for the common good. In Ferguson, Missouri, for example, a group called the Ferguson Youth Initiative has drawn together the School Board, St. Louis-based companies, and others in a program to prepare disadvantaged youth for the workforce and place them in jobs specifically created for them.
These sorts of coordinated reforms have been made newly urgent by the recent crises. Groups are bonding in different ways to support individual growth and prosperous communities – casting new light on people selflessly serving others.