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OPINION: Community activists and action are key to the COVID-19 response

by Regan Ralph | Fund for Global Human Rights
Monday, 6 April 2020 15:15 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Locally rooted responses will strengthen preventative actions and help save lives in the face of a pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has stopped nearly everything in in its tracks: schools are shuttered, borders are closed, and markets are reeling. But for frontline activists and community leaders, the work is just beginning.

The 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa underscored the immeasurable value of strong, locally rooted organizations during a health emergency. With governments stretched thin, local organizers are vital to ensuring that information and opportunities for preparation, safety, and treatment are afforded to everyone.

Throughout my career, I’ve seen the immense impact local action can have in moments of crisis and the capacity of community leaders to change lives. These selfless individuals will make or break the response to COVID-19 in communities across the world.


The economic and social realities of a health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic mean already vulnerable populations – including women, indigenous communities and those living on the economic margins – face heightened risks.

Local community leaders will be key to making sure preventative measure are available to everyone. In India, for example, local organization Jan Sahas is working to provide basic protections like masks and sanitizer to the country’s 400 million informal laborers, many of whom lost their livelihoods overnight when the country went into lockdown.

Distrust of government authority in some countries means there is also a credibility gap that could inhibit state-led prevention and mitigation. Local groups earn deep community trust, which means they can assist populations that governments may not be able to effectively reach. This is already playing out in Kenya’s coastal region, where the activists of Muslims for Human Rights have coordinated a rapid response team for civil society to disseminate information, educate communities, and advise the government.

Finally, extraordinary measures are warranted and welcome right now, if they will stop this virus and save lives. But local watchdog groups are wisely shifting their focus to make sure these emergency laws aren’t misused to stifle basic freedoms over the long term. Nigerian organization Spaces for Changes is one of the country’s top advocates for civic space. They’ve set up a new monitoring system to track the government’s response to COVID-19 and ensure the pandemic doesn’t become the pretext for persecution.

These are the kind of locally rooted responses that will strengthen preventative actions and help save lives.


During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, my friend and colleague John Kabia witnessed how local activists in West Africa were struggling to receive funding and being excluded from policy-making conversations by bigger, better-resourced international organizations. With hyperlocal context characterizing each individual outbreak of COVID-19, this crisis has shifted power from international groups to local actors.

For the global community that supports frontline human rights work – which includes NGOs, independent experts, philanthropic foundations, governments, and individual donors – there is an immediate need to redirect resources into the hands of frontline responders.

Activists and organizations need flexible support to adapt their programming based on evolving local contexts and their community’s unique needs. Emergency funds and responsive grants will be a vital part of the global response. But allowing local organizers to reprogram previous funding to meet their current priorities is the only way to tackle this crisis with the urgency it demands.

Even as we’re focused on our own communities, we must ensure that local leaders around the world – who have limited access to resources and support – are also receiving the assistance they need to protect their communities. As local action becomes more critical in the coming weeks and months, these everyday heroes need our solidarity and support more than ever.