Table of Contents

The coronavirus pandemic has placed acute stress and high expectations on governments around the world. Much has been written on a return to big government. The focus on government responses is understandable, as citizens have looked to authorities for effective responses—and often, these responses have made the difference between life and death. Yet, the pandemic has had a profound impact not only on government policies but also on societies. The crisis has played out at the public authority level and, equally, at the community and civil society levels. Somewhat unnoticed amid the focus on governments’ crisis responses, the coronavirus pandemic has sharpened and intensified the importance of organized civil society action.

This compilation examines the nature of these coronavirus-related shifts in global civil society. It is based on the contention that a deeper understanding is required of society-level responses to the crisis and the ways in which the pandemic is reshaping the relationship between states and societies. Across several regions and countries, the compilation asks a series of questions: How far has the pandemic galvanized new forms of civic activism? How far has it led governments to tighten control over civil society actors? To the extent that they have emerged, what do new forms of civic activism look like? Do they portend a different kind of global civil society, a remolded civic sphere likely to influence global politics in different ways in the post-pandemic world? If so, what are the political implications of this civic adjustment?

The compilation explores these issues through twelve chapters that cover Southeast Asia, Taiwan, India, the Middle East and North Africa, Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Ukraine, Georgia, Poland and Romania, the Western Balkans, Zimbabwe, the United States, and Latin America. The cases show that the pandemic has acted as a powerful catalyst for global civil society. In all regions, demand for civic activism has risen and new spaces have opened for civil society organizations (CSOs) to play prominent and multilevel roles in the crisis. The pandemic has given global civil society a new sense of urgency, unleashed a spirit of civic empowerment, and prompted CSOs to deepen their presence in local societies. In some countries, civic activism has also had to move up a gear and assume stronger defensive strategies because regimes have used the pandemic to attack critical civil society voices. The coronavirus pandemic period has seen heightened demand for, and an increased supply of, civic activism as well as a need for CSOs to push back against harsher government restrictions.

In terms of the ways civil society has expanded, the case studies reveal three levels of new, coronavirus-related civic activism. First, the crisis has prompted CSOs to step into emergency relief roles to help manage the effects of the pandemic. This has involved both new civic groups emerging, often at a very local community level, and existing CSOs repurposing themselves away from their normal activities. Civil society has moved in to fill the gaps left by governments in their often strained and chaotic policy responses to the emergency. In some countries, these gaps have been left by sheer government negligence and obliged societies to adopt a self-help mentality of managing the crisis for themselves. In other countries, the gaps reflect the scale of the tragedy, with governments taking wide-ranging measures more in constructive cooperation with civil society. Coronavirus-related activism has been a matter of both compensation for government failure and partnership with government intervention.

This strand of civic activism has seen many civic organizations assume new functions and identities. Many CSOs have sought to prove themselves in ways that are relevant to the health emergency and have taken on vital coronavirus-related roles. This has, in many places, helped civil society actors gain greater prominence and even a renewed legitimacy with their local societies. Not all civil society actors have adjusted, but in many countries they have shown themselves more attuned with local communities than for many years. This is true of both very new, informal, mutual aid initiatives and the more structured parts of organized civil society.

At a second level, a more confrontational form of civic activism has gained force as CSOs have increased their role as watchdogs over state authorities. In nearly all the cases studies here, civil society has moved up a gear to monitor government responses to the pandemic. This has entailed a focus on the emergency powers that executives have appropriated to manage the crisis. While these measures have clearly infringed on many basic freedoms, they have also triggered a wave of new monitoring initiatives as civil society seeks to keep governments under close scrutiny in the way they use these powers.

This level of activism has also focused on the basic governance effectiveness of crisis responses and on the breadth of measures to offset the economic impacts of the coronavirus. Governments that have scored badly on these counts have been subject to sharper critical pressure from civil society. Civic groups have been ready not only to support governments in consensual spirit but also to engage in confrontational tactics when governments fall short.

At a third level, the crisis has galvanized global civil society into pushing harder for far-reaching, radical change to social, economic, and political models. The coronavirus crisis has magnified many of the imbalances of countries’ political and economic systems. As many governments have reacted in restrictive and ineffective ways, civil society has pushed back hard. It has begun to mobilize more proactively and with vibrancy for major reform of social and economic models whose shortcomings the pandemic has cruelly revealed. This is, so far, the least widespread and least prominent of the three levels of modified activism; yet, it could prove to be the most significant over the long term.

Richard Youngs
Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe. He works on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy.
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The balance between these three dynamics has varied dramatically across countries. If this is civil society’s moment, CSOs are rising to the challenge better in some countries than in others.

Civil society is gaining importance in many contrasting ways. The balance between cooperative and conflictual dynamics differs across states, depending on government policies. Those countries in which regimes have downplayed the virus or resisted wide-ranging responses have seen the most game-changing, crisis-like civic activism. In some states, the powerful dynamic is one of conflict, contention, and political crisis, while in others, governments have contained turbulence. In some countries, incumbent regimes have doubled down on their assaults against civil society, while elsewhere, CSOs have found ways to participate more cooperatively and consequentially in key government decisions.

An important question is how these different levels of civic activism sit in relation to each other—both in the immediate crisis and in the longer-term recovery period. Many CSOs now face the challenge of cooperating with authorities on coronavirus relief while trying to retain their more critical agendas on political issues. Civic organizations will increasingly wrestle with the question of how far their new, repurposed pandemic identities can coexist with their previous identities.

These chapters show that in some countries, sharp political tension is likely to crowd out positive cooperation between governments and civil society, while in other places, the danger is more one of co-optation as CSOs work with regimes on health issues and then may struggle to revert to more contentious political strategies. In some countries, governments’ mismanagement of the pandemic has awoken more critical pressure on wider political aims; yet in others, the pandemic has somewhat diverted attention from pressing reform imperatives. In this sense, global civil society may be in a phase of adjustment with significant ramifications: some activism is set to become more practical and community rooted, while other civic mobilization will become more overtly politicized.

In sum, the coronavirus has been a wake-up call for global civil society. The pandemic has placed heavy responsibilities and strains not only on governments but also on societies around the world. While much attention has focused on governments’ emergency responses, at a deeper level the crisis is changing the relationship between states and societies. Global civil society will come out of the pandemic looking very different—and this change will be a significant factor in a now highly fluid international politics.