Covid-19 poses a serious danger to African societies and economies, as humans not only pose a threat to the virus, but also regulate the closure of vulnerable communities. Many states have further used the state of emergency as a cover to restrict civil liberties and suppress the rights of excluded groups.
Fortunately, Africa’s diverse and committed civil society has done its part to mitigate the effects of the crisis in various ways. Civil society organizations (CSOs) have been a major source of resilience, defending rights, helping those most in need, filling the gaps left by governments and businesses, and holding their governments accountable.
African governments have important lessons to learn in responding to a pandemic that will have lasting consequences and be better prepared when the next crisis strikes. They need to look at civil society in a different light and recognize the important roles that civil society plays under the pandemic. States must work with civil society and embrace not only its service-providing roles, but also the more controversial watchdog and advocacy roles, because they are all important.
A new report, released by the Johannesburg Alliance on Civil Society, CIVICUS, ‘Solidarity in the time of COVID-19’, highlights the irreplaceable roles that civil society activists and organizations of all shapes and sizes play during the pandemic.
Across Africa, civil society has responded quickly to provide food, essential services and vital sanitation to communities isolated by lockdown and impoverished by wheeled economies. Civil society entered when official communication channels failed to provide people with accurate information on how to protect themselves and their families from Covid-19. By using creative methods such as street art and working in different languages, CSOs were able to disseminate important information to communities that governments could not or did not want to reach.
Country after country across the continent, civil society has adopted a do-it-yourself mindset, cultivating a positive response characterized by flexibility, creativity and innovation. Even CSOs that normally advocate for real preference have been quickly reoriented to provide essential supplies and services.
In only a few examples, in Cameroon, where the government made masks mandatory but did not provide masks, Crusaders for environmental protection and ozone guard, a CSO that typically campaigns on environmental issues, reorients to distribute masks, manufacture disinfectants and install buckets for hand washing. Many CSOs in the DR Congo have done the same.
Work with grassroots groups in Liberia, Youth Association for Rural Development organized a series of community workshops to raise awareness of Covid-19 and how to avoid it; when donors came in later, they were surprised to discover that people already had the necessary knowledge.
In South Africa, the Ndlovu Youth Choir worked to dispel myths and misconceptions about Covid-19 and share basic health guidelines through their music.
Civil society has devoted much of its response to helping groups at risk and excluding groups adversely affected by closures and emergency measures. Women who are locked up indoors are at greater risk for gender-based violence. Sexual minorities, migrants and refugees and ethnic or religious minority groups are often smeared and discriminated against as sources of infection.
Civil society has taken up the challenge, advocating for policies to protect excluded groups and establish remote services to help vulnerable communities.
Malawi’s Center for Social Concern and Developmentfor example, launched a mobile-to-mobile enabling service so that it could stay in touch with girls at risk of sexual violence if it was no longer possible to reach them physically.
In many countries, civil society has also sought to hold police forces accountable for human rights violations committed during the application of emergency regulations. In Nigeria, Spaces for change set up an online detection team to map restrictions, including police violence, and set up a helpline to provide free legal advice to people whose rights are being violated.
But rather than acknowledging these important roles in civil society, African governments have too often responded by imposing further restrictions. Bell ringers have been targeted: then journalist Hopewell Chin’ono exposing corruption in the procurement of medical supplies in Zimbabwe was his reward arrest and detention.
Protests, even when masked and removed, were often brutally brought under control. In one shocking example, at least six people were killed during a protest against emergency restrictions in Guinea in May.
It does not have to be this way, and Africa also offers cases of good practice in partnership. In Somalia, for example, Action against hunger successfully partnered with the Ministry of Health to raise awareness about Covid-19, using social media and other communication channels to reach vulnerable and excluded groups.
Where governments worked with civil society and created an enabling environment for their work, the response to the pandemic was much more effective. Since Covid-19 is still an urgent issue in so many countries, and with urgent debates pending on how post-pandemic reconstruction can lead to better and fairer societies, partnership with civil society should not be a choice; it is a necessity.
Andrew Firmin is Editor-in-Chief and Inés Pousadela Senior Research Specialist by CIVICUS. ‘Solidarity in the time of COVID-19’ is available to read and download here.