The past few months have given new insight into the phenomenon of civic activism. This is primarily due to the spread of the pandemic throughout the world and the natural desire of people to rally to confront this threat. One of the most complete and classic definitions of civic activism can be found in a study by scholars from Finland, a country where civic activism is extremely prevalent. They formulated it as “collective events of an initiative and constructive nature, organized by the citizens themselves on their terms.” This type of activism, they believe, is usually directed towards action rather than political influence or expression of political opinion and operates outside of governmental and non-governmental organizations, using the Internet and social media (Mäenpää and Faehnle, 2017). Note that this definition was formulated before the emergence of a global threat when it was difficult even to imagine the situation of COVID-19, and it was considered in the conditions of a prosperous European society, with its specific concerns. It seems that in the current situation, this movement is transforming, and in some places it immediately arises and takes shape with slightly different goals that go beyond such activities as the desire to improve the urban environment, its spaces, diversify services and cultural offerings, as well as participate in production and circulation of goods and services.
There is no doubt about the benefits of charitable and environmental activities, as well as conducting surveys by volunteers among various groups of the population for research purposes or even for government agencies. However, during a crisis, these types of civic activism lose their relevance.
The data of the Public Opinion Survey, which was conducted by the Foundation for Democratic Initiatives from April 15 to May 1, 2020, within the framework of the USAID / ENGAGE project, in Ukraine, indicate that 50% of respondents agreed that the pandemic has increased “social capital”, strengthened social and human communication and solidarity, and helped develop skills and technologies for self-organization. [The Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, 2020].In other words, the main incentive for participation in the activities of public organizations and associations is not so much the design of the urban space as the protection of the rights and interests of vulnerable groups of the population. For this, public initiatives are being created. Civil society is gradually maturing. Sometimes civil society activists go even further and try to establish public control over the activities of the authorities.
Pandemic activism naturally manifests itself in different ways in different countries, depending on the context. Dynamic, rapidly evolving networks are emerging, operating either through social projects or informal partnerships, creating tools that provide ample opportunities for the activation and participation of highly diverse people with a high level of responsibility who have and realize their cultural and social capital [Citroni and Coppola, 2020].
In Tunisia, for example, more than 100,000 volunteers have joined Facebook to fight the virus, collecting money, medicines, disinfecting public places, and identifying those in need of financial assistance from 24 focal points in the country. In Poland, on special online platforms, contacts of people in need with community groups that can support them are organized. In Iran, a group of enterprises and volunteers delivered special protective equipment and food to health workers [Brechenmacher et al., 2020]. In Kazakhstan, groups of civic activists checked the availability of necessary medicines in pharmacies and hospitals and informed the population to save tens and hundreds of desperate people from useless searches and at the same time inform the responsible persons in the power structures about the existing shortage of medicines. In Russia, there was also a sharp increase in the number of social volunteers who were in demand by the state on a massive scale, which, according to Russian analysts, brings social volunteering to a completely new level – both in terms of recognition and quantitatively [Berkhin, 2020].
In Singapore, activists have demanded from the government that it improve living conditions in a dormitory for migrant workers, where foreign workers have been restricted to contain the pandemic, and officials have heard and responded to these calls [Yong Han Poh, 2020]. Volunteers from small American towns have distributed supplies, including hand sanitizer, on the streets in school districts, and have worked to create secure food outlets that people can visit when the need arises [Burley, 2020]. Also, initiatives have sprung up everywhere to bring neighbors together to help the most vulnerable members of the community.
At the same time, many civil society activists note the unwillingness of their governments to take adequate measures to address the pandemic, help the population, and provide basic services. This largely explains the criticism of the population against state bodies. We are talking about both developed, technically, and economically strong countries, and those whose resources are limited.
However, disappointment in the ineffective or unprofessional actions of responsible officials, a disorder in the fundamental systems of society, weak medical infrastructure, a sharp drop in the incomes of a large part of the population, unexpectedly large numbers of morbidity and mortality from coronavirus infection, mistrust of the general public in official statistics – all these phenomena are characteristic of most countries in the world. They lead to the rise of activism from the grassroots localized and informal level to a higher country level, and, as a result, to the politicization of problems that were initially outside the political context, if we understand by politicization the unification of individuals into groups aimed at changing the problematic order, leaving the private spheres into public space, the emergence of like-minded people besides family and friends. Such phenomena often occur during humanitarian crises and disasters, and one of the ways to mitigate possible exacerbation and tensions in society can be cooperation between government agencies and civil activists and their organizations.
Thus, organizational networks and social ties within the framework of civic activism, as a rule, were created at the local level and could continue to be a resource of the city administration for identifying and solving various problems at the municipal level. However, in the context of a pandemic, and crises in general, mutual assistance projects, as the main element of civic initiatives, are expanding, especially when the government’s response to the pandemic has turned out to be inadequate, as has happened in some states this year. The changed scales and formats of civic participation contributed to the reconfiguration of the structures and roles of social groups, which largely led to the increasing political significance of activism in modern society in the global dimension. Changing the nature and experience of activists in extreme conditions will help, we believe, in strengthening the resilience of the community to future possible shocks and laying the foundation for the restoration of what many of us consider normal human existence.
Berkhin, Vladimir (2020). Echoes of the pandemic. How the coronavirus affected charity. Retrieved from https://philanthropy.ru/analysis/2020/06/26/90475/ Accessed on 15.10.2020.
Brechenmacher, Saskia, Carothers, Thomas, and Youngs, Richard (2020). Civil Society and the Coronavirus: Dynamism Despite Disruption. Retrieved from https://carnegieendowment.org/2020/04/21/civil-society-and-coronavirus-dynamism-despite-disruption-pub-81592. Accessed on 09.10.2020.
Burley, Shane (2020). Amid the coronavirus crisis, mutual aid networks erupt across the country. Retrieved from https://wagingnonviolence.org/2020/03/coronavirus-mutual-aid-networks-erupt-across-country/. Accessed on 15.10.2020.
Citroni, Sebastiano & Coppola, Alessandro (2020). The emerging civil society. Governing through leisure activism in Milan. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02614367.2020.1795228. Accessed on 09.10.2020.
The Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation (2020). Civil society in times of pandemic: how COVID-19 affects civic engagement 2020. Retrieved from https://dif.org.ua/en/article/civil-society-in-times-of-pandemic-how-covid-19-affects-civic-engagement. Accessed on 16.10.2020.
Yong Han Poh (2020). Singapore’s Migrant Worker Debate: Advocacy Amid a Pandemic What a migrant worker’s dormitory debate revealed about the relationship between Singapore’s government, citizens, and NGOs. Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/singapores-migrant-worker-debate-advocacy-amid-a-pandemic. Accessed on 15.10.2020.
Note: The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the Institute’s editorial policy.
Nadirova Gulnar Ermuratovna graduated from the Oriental Faculty of Leningrad State University, in 1990 she defended her thesis on the Algerian literature at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, in 2006 doctoral thesis - on modern Tunisian literature at the Tashkent Institute of Oriental Studies, Professor.