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OPINION: Want a better post-pandemic world? Civil society has the answers

by Andrew Firmin | CIVICUS
Friday, 29 May 2020 10:23 GMT

A woman wearing a protective face mask crosses a street, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Milan, Italy April 9, 2020. REUTERS/Daniele Mascolo

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

Solutions developed by civil society organisations from Sudan to Chile will make them vital partners in the COVID-19 recovery process

Andrew Firmin is Editor-in-Chief of global civil society alliance, CIVICUS and has previously written for Equal Times, IPS and the Diplomatic Courier.

Many of us continue to live in states of lockdown, but even as we do so the debate about what kind of world we want to re-emerge to should be an urgent one. It’s common to hear the sentiment that people can’t wait for life to get back to normal. But we need to ask whether that old normal is good enough. Many in civil society would suggest there is a need to aim higher.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the measures taken in response to it have had extraordinary economic, social and political impacts. But none of the problems exposed by the crisis are new. The pandemic has exacerbated and accelerated failings that were already there. As CIVICUS’s new State of Civil Society Report shows, before the virus struck business as usual was failing so many of us. Essential civic and democratic freedoms were already tightly restricted: only three per cent of people live in countries where the key freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression are broadly respected. 

As shown by countless, large-scale protests of the past year, from Ecuador to Egypt and from Lebanon to Zimbabwe, many people were already being failed by economic policies that concentrate elite wealth and leave many living precarious lives on the wrong side of a growing divide. People were already attacked and denied rights on the basis of their identities – because they are women or members of minority groups. The international institutions that offer an essential source of the expertise and support needed to fight problems that spill across borders were already being undermined by repressive states and a cadre of rogue leaders. And another, even greater global emergency – the climate crisis – offered a test that has comprehensively been failed by governments and big business all around the world. Should this really be a normal that we yearn to go back to?

Indeed, the danger now is of settling for something even worse – of being forced to accept a resurgence of the cruel policies of economic austerity that hurt the poorest and make the richest even richer, of emergency restrictions on our key freedoms lingering and calcifying into heightened authoritarianism, of a carbon-fuelled dash for GDP recovery that further endangers our planet. Right now, the battle is on to avoid this and instead put forward alternative plans for recovery that expand rights, make economies fairer, level up inequalities, reverse the climate crisis and build workable international institutions. These would make a better normal.

The good news is that there is a source of those solutions we can all draw from: civil society. In the last year, civil society was at the forefront of battles for rights and fairer economic, political and social policies. 2019 and the early months of 2020 saw a great wave of protests and other kinds of civic action as people came together in their millions to demand the better normal. 

And people won immense successes: in Sudan, a long-established dictator was turfed out of office and jailed, and an attempted military takeover then resisted by a huge mass of people determined to win democracy. In Chile, a consultative process to develop a new constitution was won through the largest protests in decades as people demanded an end to 30 years of policies that have widened inequality. In Hong Kong, the people’s thirst for democracy was proven by unprecedented mobilisations, and the administration, even though it channels the mighty repressive power of China, was forced to drop an extradition law that would have enabled it to send dissidents on a one-way trip to the mainland. And climate change became widely understood as the defining issue of our time, front-page news that politicians must take seriously, not because governments and policy-makers took the initiative, but because civil society forced it into the headlines, through the school strike movement and non-violent direct actions that swept the world.

Lockdown brought a pause to these many public mobilisations for a better normal and forced us to take our activism online, while also doing our best to redeploy resources to help those most badly affected by the crisis. But the ideas incubated by civil society – for a green new deal that respects the climate while creating sustainable jobs, a universal basic income, debt cancellation for global south countries, among many others – have never been more needed. If implemented, they can help ensure that the recovery serves everyone and starts tackling those profound problems identified by civil society. They would be a fitting tribute to the sacrifices frontline workers made to combat the virus and serve the public.

It’s clear that civil society must engage in the struggle for a socially just and rights-based recovery, and to help with this, the many restrictions that hinder civil society from operating and acting in so many countries of the world need to be removed. An enabled, networked and resourced civil society has so much to offer to help build the better post-pandemic world that must come out of this crisis.