Two European Union (EU) member states, Poland and Romania, show not only the importance of the civil society dimension of the coronavirus pandemic but also the ways in which civic responses have differed markedly across countries. In Poland, the pandemic has sharpened tensions and hostilities between the government and civil society organizations (CSOs). Polish CSOs have mobilized around the pandemic, but the government has failed to channel this energy into coordinated efforts, exacerbating social conflicts and deepening an existing rift with civil society. In contrast, in Romania the government and CSOs have worked together in a more cooperative fashion to mitigate the impacts of the coronavirus.
The pandemic has had equally important but contrasting effects on civil society in these two countries. In turn, CSO actions have differed, becoming more partnership oriented in Romania but more critical in Poland.
Poland: Sharpened Confrontation
The coronavirus has deepened mistrust between the Polish government and CSOs. Instead of treating civic actors as partners and allies, the government in Warsaw has aggravated existing tensions and created new ones. The pandemic seems to have made the right-wing Law and Justice government more determined to deepen the rift that separates it from large segments of civil society. While in some countries the pandemic has been an impulse to enhance cooperation between state and civic actors, the Polish government has not only escalated tensions with civil society but also, in some cases, deliberately started new conflicts to consolidate its power.
The pandemic has been a catalyst for a great deal of new civic activism. According to a survey by the Klon/Jawor Association, a nongovernmental organization, 32 percent of Polish CSOs started new activities in response to the pandemic and another 17 percent were planning such activities.1 New forms of assistance and activism have ranged from organizing social and information campaigns and helping people in high-risk groups to assisting medical workers and producing face masks. Only 4 percent of organizations that took on new and creative ways of dealing with the health crisis have partnered with the government or other state institutions.
Given the unprecedented nature of the challenge, the state and civil society might have been expected to form national and local cooperative networks to deal with the crisis. But such partnerships have been few and far between. The situation is slightly different, however, at the local level. There, many of the CSOs that actively seek to help vulnerable citizens or exposed professionals have worked with local authorities. This difference between the national and the local level is deeply political, as it reflects mistrust between CSOs and the central government that predates the pandemic.
When Law and Justice came to power in 2015 after eight years in opposition, reshaping the landscape of Polish civil society quickly became part of its agenda. The government did not openly say it was intent on suppressing civic activities but claimed it wanted a balance between different types of CSOs. The main proponent of this rebalancing was Piotr Gliński, who, as newly appointed minister of culture, initiated the creation of the National Freedom Institute—Center for the Development of Civil Society (NIW-CSO). This new institution was tasked with taking over the financing of existing civic activities in various ministries and developing new activities. The institution received a significantly larger budget than those of earlier, separate programs, benefiting Polish civic organizations.
NIW-CSO’s main goal was to enhance the capacities of organizations that worked outside large urban centers and lacked sufficient funds to secure their long-term activities. The aim was allegedly a de-oligarchization of the Polish third sector, even though the percentage of funds administered by large Polish CSOs is very similar to that in other countries with a robust civic life: in Poland in 2018, 74 percent of funds were governed by 4 percent of the biggest CSOs, while in the United Kingdom, 74 percent of funds were managed by 3 percent of the largest organizations.2
The Polish government’s somewhat misguided justification for reforming the third sector would not have been so detrimental to its pre-pandemic image in the eyes of many CSOs if it had not been accompanied by a smear campaign in state-controlled public media. This campaign targeted some organizations that criticized Law and Justice’s reforms for undermining the independence of the judiciary or cutting public funds for organizations that help groups deemed by the government to be unwelcome or potentially dangerous, such as refugees or LGBTQ individuals. Moreover, in some cases, public funds were provided to organizations that lacked necessary experience but were ideologically close to the government; such practices did not go unnoticed by Polish civil society and exacerbated mistrust toward central authorities.
When the coronavirus broke out in Europe, after some initial foot-dragging, in mid-March the Polish government imposed a lockdown and physical distancing measures. Trust in the Polish healthcare system is very low in comparison with other EU countries. According to the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound), an EU agency, the average level of trust in the Polish healthcare system, on a seven-point scale in which 7 is the highest, is 4.1. That is below the EU average of 6.4 and places Poland among three EU countries whose citizens are the most distrustful of their healthcare systems.3
Given this widespread belief that Poland’s medical services are inadequate, it did not come as a surprise that most Poles accepted a severe lockdown and physical distancing measures. A fear of becoming infected with the coronavirus was accompanied by a well-grounded belief that if the number of infections exceeded a certain level, the healthcare system would not be able to cope and might collapse.
CSOs were aware of the dire situation and started new initiatives to compensate for this lack of trust in government-run medical responses. They repurposed many of their activities to help medical professionals in their daily efforts to contain the pandemic. These new activities took many different forms, from delivering hot meals to hospitals to crowdfunding for protective gear. These actions were usually spontaneous and were rarely coordinated with the central government.
The government responded with further attacks on civil liberties. Tensions reflected not only an existing legacy of mistrust but also the harsh way in which the government treated medics who had pointed out the unpreparedness of the Polish healthcare system to deal with the pandemic. There were disciplinary dismissals of healthcare workers who had spoken out about bad conditions in their institutions; hospital directors forbade doctors from talking to the media; and the health ministry officially obliged its regional consultants not to comment in public on the epidemiological situation.4 Instead of treating whistleblowers as allies who were working to close loopholes in healthcare systems and effectively contain the coronavirus, the government treated them as disloyal, further discouraging civil society from cooperating with the authorities.
Building on these tensions, the government sought to tighten its control over the civic sector on the back of the pandemic. The ministers of justice and the environment proposed a new register of CSOs that benefit from foreign funding.5 The official justification for the register was that it would enhance transparency, but most organizations are already obliged to submit financial reports to governmental institutions, and those that are well respected publish extensive information about their financing on their websites. The government also proposed that CSOs whose foreign financing exceeds a certain level must label all their materials accordingly. Neither proposal seemed to serve any practical purpose apart from stigmatizing CSOs and presenting them as alien or even hostile to Polish national interests.
Mistrust between civic actors and the government was also deepened by the way in which Warsaw handled the political crisis caused by the timing of the May 10, 2020, presidential election. Before the vote, the government failed to announce a state of emergency, which would have allowed the election to be pushed back because of the coronavirus in accordance with the constitution. There followed heavy criticism from the opposition, internal strife with a coalition partner, and a series of innovative civic protests, which were conducted despite the lockdown and involved honking car horns and playing an alarm signal from balconies. The government did not want to risk a record low turnout in the election and decided to postpone it simply by announcing the fact and presenting the country’s electoral commission with a fait accompli. The turmoil, and the fact that approximately 70 million zloty ($18 million) was wasted on postal ballots that became useless after the vote was postponed, created another point of contention between the government and civil society.6
The coronavirus fed into other instances of ongoing tension, too. The central authorities further stoked polarization by holding the reading of a bill that would effectively make it illegal to terminate a pregnancy under any circumstances and ban sexual education in schools. The bill had been proposed by radical antiabortion organizations during the previous term of the parliament and was signed by the required number of citizens, so the ruling majority was legally obliged to hold the reading. But by keeping this obligation (and ignoring others), despite the health crisis and without any indication that it would distance itself from the new law, the government provoked a series of creative, physically distanced street protests in many Polish cities. The bill was later buried in a parliamentary committee, but the tension with civic organizations that were critical of the government escalated further. The pandemic has accentuated Poland’s culture wars, rather than encouraging actors to set their differences aside.
Romania: Refocused Partnerships
The situation has been different in Romania. There, the government has managed to avoid a major political and economic crisis and worked constructively with civil society, the private sector, and other relevant stakeholders to contain the negative effects of the coronavirus. Romanian civil society has been proactive in contributing to solving the medical and socioeconomic problems generated by the pandemic and adopted a fairly collaborative attitude toward the government, rather than the zero-sum approach prevalent in some other countries in the region. In this regard, there has been a noticeable shift from the confrontational relationship between Romania’s previous social democratic government and civil society, which focused during much of the 2010s on fighting corruption and upholding the rule of law and the independence of the justice system.
Some watchdog organizations have drawn attention to the corruption that lies at the root of the poor functioning of the medical system and insufficient sanitary supplies and hospital staff in the context of the pandemic; but this is generally regarded as the nefarious legacy of three decades of poor governance in the country.7 CSOs’ main priority has been to help with service provision and emergency relief, complementing the state’s capacity in those areas. As such, civil society in Romania has gone through a slight change of focus during the coronavirus pandemic but has not taken on a new identity or undergone structural change.
Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including those that focus on democracy and governance issues, have redirected their activities to service delivery to help provide medical supplies and a wide variety of social services, particularly for disadvantaged and vulnerable people. In this context, CSOs have formed several coalitions and partnered with public institutions and private companies to join the fight against the virus. For instance, several prominent CSOs have started fundraising campaigns to buy medical equipment and supplies, mainly protective gear for doctors and nurses.8
One of the most proactive CSOs has been Red Cross Romania, which has substantive expertise in preventing and combating diseases, working in permanent collaboration with central and local authorities, and offering logistical support in the fight against the coronavirus.9 Red Cross Romania signed a memorandum with the government and launched a national fundraising campaign. In partnership with public authorities, Red Cross Romania also conducted a national campaign to raise awareness of the coronavirus among the population and combat fake news.
Another well-known CSO, Give Life, which launched the construction of Romania’s first oncology and radiotherapy hospital for children with money donated by private citizens and companies, started an online crowdfunding campaign. The initiative was joined by other associations, such as Day of Good and Save the Children.10 The funds collected have been used to equip hospitals and staff working directly with coronavirus patients with protective and medical equipment and to help build a modular hospital to supplement the number of beds for severe coronavirus cases. According to one of the founders of Give Life, Carmen Uscatu, “for Romania to be able to face the coronavirus epidemic, collaboration between authorities, doctors, and civil society is necessary.”11
There are hundreds of examples that showcase the strong impact of CSOs on the local communities in which they work. According to data collected by the Association for Community Relations from over eighty organizations, CSOs have provided hospitals with medical equipment worth over $16 million. The groups raised money to buy more than 115 ventilators, twenty-one polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing devices, 30,000 PCR tests, seventy monitors, and another 60,000 medical devices. More than 1.5 million surgical masks and almost 500,000 filter masks have reached medical units throughout Romania.12
Hundreds of other local organizations and informal civic groups not captured by the official numbers have been actively working to protect doctors, support vulnerable people, and do their utmost to fulfill their civic missions. These efforts, which are based on informal CSOs’ extensive links with local communities and those communities’ trust in them, mark a boost in the importance of these civic groups vis-à-vis the more professional organizations that operate at the national level. It is yet to be seen, however, whether these local CSOs and networks will be sustainable in the long term.
On the government’s side, there has been an important shift in citizen and civil society engagement from a reactive approach to more proactive arrangements through modernized tools of engagement. Since March 2020, the government has organized several public consultations with professional associations and CSOs. The aim has been to integrate civil society’s input into the creation of socioeconomic measures and a comprehensive plan to relaunch economic growth and development after the crisis.
During the consultations, senior officials have committed to develop an institutional mechanism to collaborate with NGOs, enable a permanent and systematic dialogue with CSOs on issues of interest, and devise tools for monitoring, evaluation, and reconfiguration by both sides.13 This mechanism has so far translated into several sectoral meetings with line ministries and other relevant public authorities. As a result, the government included many of the CSOs’ views and much of their expertise in the preparation of its crisis response and recovery measures, to tailor these better to the needs of citizens and local communities, as voiced by civic groups. CSOs also welcomed the government’s reestablishment of the Department for Cooperation with the Associative Environment as an important contact point for CSOs at the governmental level.14
There has been some criticism from Romanian CSOs, too. Organizations have called for increased transparency in the political decisionmaking process. In an open letter to the Romanian parliament and the parliamentary political parties, almost forty professional and civil society organizations called for participation in the online public meetings of parliamentary committees not to be restricted. These organizations complained that they had been prevented from expressing their points of view and that parliamentarians had ignored civil society during the pandemic.15 CSOs legitimately expected to find solutions for greater transparency in policymaking with public authorities, including through the use of new technologies. The government itself provided an example of the openness of other public authorities, and the 2020–2022 Open Government Partnership National Action Plan, due to be adopted later in 2020, aims to make transparency a priority.16
In addition, several CSOs have drawn attention to the fact that civil society, and the third sector in general, requires more support. The Civil Society Development Foundation drew up a position paper that shows that civil society needs to be included among the sectors deeply affected by the pandemic. The paper, supported by almost 600 CSOs, argues for active measures to support the activities of NGOs and ensure the continuity of the services they provide, including by serving vulnerable groups in critical need during the pandemic.
CSOs have also warned against possible harm to democratic processes. After local elections planned for June 2020 were delayed because of the coronavirus, CSOs made concrete proposals to improve the electoral process in the context of the pandemic. Suggestions included increasing the number of days for voting, introducing additional hygiene measures, and reorganizing polling stations.17 The government took on board many of these suggestions in its organization of the postponed elections, which took place on September 27, 2020.
In general, CSOs have not supported the criticisms from some prominent opposition party members of the government’s quarantine and isolation rules; these opposition figures have publicly encouraged citizens to disobey health and safety measures and accused the government of “instating a police state” run by doctors.18 CSOs have also stressed that the legal provisions for removing false information about the coronavirus should be implemented with caution and balance.19
Despite rallies being forbidden during Romania’s state of emergency for public health reasons, a few hundred people participated in two protests against face masks in front of the government’s headquarters in Bucharest’s Victoria Square. On May 15 and July 12, 2020, the protesters, who were standing very close to each other and not wearing protective equipment, denounced the health and safety measures imposed by the government.20 The military police reacted peacefully by talking to protesters and informing them of the legal provisions and the importance of wearing masks. The police told the protesters about the measures to be taken in case of noncompliance and issued several fines. After retreating from Victoria Square, the protesters stood and applauded in front of the Russian embassy in Bucharest, pointing to potential disinformation attempts by Russian-backed agents.21
These two cases from Central and Eastern Europe show how civic activism has moved up a gear in response to the pandemic but in very different ways and with contrasting political implications. In Poland, the coronavirus has deepened the rift between the government and civil society that had been opening up for some years before the pandemic struck. In this sense, the emergency has fed into ongoing contentious politics in which CSOs confront an increasingly authoritarian government. CSOs’ new health activism has sought to compensate for poor medical responses by the government and dovetail with a broader political agenda.
In Romania, the pandemic seems to have improved the relationship between the government and civil society—a relationship that had been problematic in many ways in the years before the coronavirus. Many Romanian CSOs have reoriented their work to provide service delivery and emergency relief with the aim of complementing the state’s capacity in those areas. Civil society has adopted a fairly collaborative attitude toward the government and been proactive in contributing to mitigate the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic, including by forming coalitions and partnering with public authorities and businesses. In response, the Romanian government has made its policymaking and crisis response measures more transparent and collaborative by organizing consultations and including CSOs in decisionmaking, enabling genuine cooperation.
This comparison suggests that the pandemic is likely to change civic activism in directions related to countries’ underlying political situations, leading to more confrontational politics in some states and more collaborative politics in others.
1 Beata Charycka and Marta Gumkowska, “2020 – organizacje pozarządowe wobec pandemii” [2020: CSOs in the face of the pandemic], Klon/Jawor Association, May 2020, https://api.ngo.pl/media/get/135421.
2 Lidia Kuczmierowska, “Czy nowa strategia nas rozwinie?” [Will the new strategy develop us?], Trzeci sektor 03, no. 43 (2018).
3 Daphne Ahrendt et al., “Living, Working and COVID-19,” European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions, September 28, 2020, https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/publications/report/2020/living-working-and-COVID-19-first-findings-april-2020.
4 Karolina Nowakowska, “Lekarze mają milczeć o koronawirusie. Dyrektorzy wyciszają medyków” [Doctors are to be silent about the coronavirus. Directors silence medics], Gazeta Prawna, March 26, 2020, https://serwisy.gazetaprawna.pl/zdrowie/artykuly/1463864,koronawirus-w-polsce-uciszanie-lekarzy.html.
5 “Czy powstanie publiczny indeks organizacji pozarządowych finansowanych z zagranicy?” [Will there be a public index of non-governmental organisations financed from abroad?], ngo.pl, August 7, 2020, https://publicystyka.ngo.pl/czy-powstanie-publiczny-wykazu-organizacji-pozarzadowych-finansowanych-przez-podmioty-zagraniczne.
6 Juliette Bretan, “70 Million Zloty Bill for Poland’s Abandoned Presidential Election,” Notes from Poland, May 27, 2020, https://notesfrompoland.com/2020/05/27/70-million-zloty-bill-for-polands-abandoned-presidential-election/.
7 Radu Dumitrescu, “De ce în România nimeni nu îi aplaudă pe medici. Presa britanică face legătura dintre corupție și faptul că spitalele au ajuns focare de infecție cu coronavirus” [Why in Romania no one applauds doctors. The British press links corruption to the facts that hosptials have become outbreaks of coronavirus infection], G4Media, April 6, 2020, https://www.g4media.ro/ce-in-romania-nimeni-nu-ii-aplauda-pe-medici-presa-britanica-face-legatura-dintre-coruptie-si-faptul-ca-spitalele-au-ajuns-focare-de-infectie-cu-coronavirus.html.
8 George Gurescu, “Ce fac ONG-urile în vreme de pandemie,” Mindcraft Stories, May 1, 2020, https://mindcraftstories.ro/societate/ce-fac-ong-urile-in-vreme-de-pandemie/.
9 “Comunicate,” Red Cross Romania, https://crucearosie.ro/cauze-urgente/doneaza-si-lupta-impotriva-pandemiei-covid19/comunicate.
10 “Responsabilitate și #solidaritate pentru a lupta cu COVID-19,” Give Life Association, https://www.daruiesteviata.ro/campanii/sprijinim-lupta-cu-COVID-19/bG3DOJ2da.
11 Author’s translation from Mirela Dădăcuș, “Coronavirus | “Dăruiește Viață”: Statul trebuie să aibă dialog cu societatea civilă și să spună exact de ce este nevoie” [Coronavirus | “Give Life”: The state must have a dialogue with civil society and say exactly what is needed], RFI, March 20, 2020, https://www.rfi.ro/social-119361-coronavirus-daruieste-viata-statul-trebuie-sa-aiba-dialog-cu-societatea-civila-si-sa.
12 “Sectorul nonguvernamental a dotat spitalele cu echipamente și aparatură în valoare de 14 milioane de euro și a sprijinit mii de persoane vulnerabile în toate județele,” ArcRomania, April 30, 2020, https://arcromania.ro/arc/sectorul-nonguvernamental-a-dotat-spitalele-cu-echipamente-si-aparatura-in-valoare-de-14-milioane-de-euro-si-a-sprijinit-mii-de-persoane-vulnerabile-in-toate-judetele/.
13 “Informare cu privire la întâlnirea premierului Ludovic Orban cu un grup de ONG-uri” [Information on the meeting of prime minster Ludovic Orban with a group of NGOs], Center for Independent Journalism, May 4, 2020, https://cji.ro/informarea-fdsc-cu-privire-la-intalnirea-premierului-ludovic-orban-cu-un-grup-de-ong-uri/.
14 “Informarea FDSC cu privire la intalnirea premierului Ludovic Orban cu un grup de ONG-uri,” Civil Society Development Foundation, May 4, 2020, http://www.fdsc.ro/library/files/informare_ong_intalnire_pm_04.05.2020_final.pdf.
15 “Scrisoare deschisă privind transparența procedurilor parlamentare semnată de 38 de organizații ale mediului de afaceri și societății civile” [Open letter on the transparency of parliamentary procedures signed by 38 business and civil society organizations], STIRI.ONG, April 23, 2020, https://www.stiri.ong/institutii-si-legislatie/romania/scrisoare-deschisa-privind-transparenta-procedurilor-parlamentare-semnata-de-38-de-organizatii-ale-mediului-de-afaceri-si-societatii-civile.
16 “Grup de lucru – Angajamente guvernare deschisă – PNA 2020-2022” [Working group – open government commitments – NAP 2020-2022], Government of Romania, https://sgg.gov.ro/new/guvernare-deschisa-2/.
17 “Informarea FDSC,” Civil Society Development Foundation.
18 Author’s translation from Timeea Teodoru, “Ciolacu: „NU vom permite transformarea țării în lagăr medical”… după ce PSD a votat „lagărul”” [Ciolacu: “We will NOT allow the transformation of the country into a medical camp” after PSD voted “the camp”], Qmagazine, July 10, 2020, https://www.qmagazine.ro/ciolacunu-vom-permite-transformarea-tarii-in-lagar-medical-dupa-ce-psd-a-votat-lagarul/.
19 “Informarea FDSC,” Civil Society Development Foundation.
20 “Protest în Piața Victoriei. Jandarmeria a dat amenzi” [Protest in Victoriei Square. The gendarmerie gave fines], Digi 24, July 12, 2020, https://www.digi24.ro/stiri/actualitate/protest-in-piata-victoriei-jandarmeria-a-dat-amenzi-1337065.
21 Ana Popescu, “Protestatarii anti-COVID s-au oprit în fața Ambasadei Rusiei ca să aplaude/Doi oameni care au refuzat să se legitimeze au fost amendați” [Anti-COVID protesters stop in front of Russian Embassy to applaud/Two people who refused to identify themselves were fined], G4 Media, July 14, 2020, https://www.g4media.ro/protestatarii-anti-covid-s-au-oprit-in-fata-ambasadei-rusiei-ca-sa-aplaude-doi-oameni-care-au-refuzat-sa-se-legitimeze-au-fost.html.