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In the wake of Covid-19, communities and organizations all over the world have been mobilizing to bring attention and respond to serious social issues that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. This type of community engagement is a reminder of our responsibility to be aware of the inequalities in our society and to support local initiatives in any way that we can. Furthermore, governments, with their varying capacities, can only do so much without the participation and leadership of local communities; it can therefore be valuable to explore the potential of more organized collaborative initiatives.

Volunteer efforts

One way communities have responded is through the mobilization of people and resources to provide basic support to those at the frontlines of the pandemic and those who are most vulnerable. Restaurants in many parts of the world have been sending meals to their local hospitals and health care centers. In the United States, more than 3.4 million hotel rooms are being offered to healthcare workers who, under these circumstances, fear spreading the virus to their families. In some countries, volunteers have also been providing support to senior citizens and people with disabilities. Not to mention the numerous efforts to protect the homeless population in France, Italy, and Scotland, to name a few.

Still, millions of healthcare workers are overworked and are experiencing psychological consequences as they continue to push through,with some even reporting harassment by their neighbours.

The disabled community continues to be one of the worst affected by the crisis; the number of homeless people is growing and more groups are becoming increasingly vulnerable. While the volunteers and organizers of such initiatives deserve recognition, what they really need is more financial, organizational and legal support.

Petitions, Protests and Prevention

A different kind of response that can be identified is one that is more focused on protesting existing structures and influencing policies. Similarly to the above examples, it emerges out of the necessity to protect communities; rent strikes are a clear example of this. On May 1st, the French National Collective called for a European rent strike, pointing to rent strikes and demonstrations already happening in Germany, France, Spain and the UK. The call for action highlighted that timing was critical and if any real change was to be achieved, now would be the time; a sentiment that more and more people have been echoing.

If we acknowledge the window of possibility such a time opens then it’s our duty to seize the day before the opportunity is lost.
– French NC

In Greece, hundreds of asylum seekers are finally being transferred from overcrowded refugee camps to the mainland following action taken by European citizens, doctors and artists, through the SOS Moria distress call. Although concerns about the conditions of camps in Greece have been ongoing since 2018, the potential consequences of serious outbreak necessitated more urgent calls for immediate action. Initiatives of this kind are often successful in pressuring governments to prioritize certain issues that may have otherwise been delayed; which would have had tragic consequences.

Obstacles to agency

Pushing for structural change requires the mobilization of many people, but it could also be that a restructuring and redistribution of existing efforts and initiatives is just as vital. NGOs joining forces to take collective action are one example of this. Inequality is also a factor when organizing wide scale action, as people who are fairly secure may not feel the same sense of urgency as those who are more vulnerable. On the other hand, those who are most negatively affected may not have the resources or capacity to initiate action. In many ways, the crisis is widening these gaps and we need higher levels of awareness to be able to address this.

Unfortunately, most governments are not doing enough to reduce existing inequalities and protect the most vulnerable groups from the potential aftershocks of the pandemic. Some responses to the crisis have exacerbated deep seated inequalities that existed at an institutional level. In Paris for example, living conditions under the lockdown have been compared to prison life by those living in the suburbs, or banlieues, where residents happen to be predominantly from immigrant backgrounds. Ethnic minorities in France are already too familiar with police aggression and racial profiling; the current lockdown has only further exposed the kind of discrimination they face in their daily lives.

While many governments do try to support the most vulnerable groups, their efforts seem to be part of a short term response rather than interrogating systemic inequalities, where a long term strategy is critical. Numerous people have taken to social media to criticize symbolic gestures that do not really compensate for or address the real and immediate needs of people such as healthcare workers.

It is grossly hypocritical to clap our carers one day and then charge them to use the NHS the next.

Labour is calling for an end to this injustice and we would urge all Tory MPs who agree with us to back us.

— Keir Starmer (@Keir_Starmer) May 21, 2020

 Collaboration is imperative

It can be argued that what makes leadership effective is how it responds to, collaborates with and supports local initiatives. The Flemish government, for example, has begun providing free insurance to those volunteering to help others in Belgium. They are also making efforts to follow and support the growing number of civil initiatives emerging around the country. In a very different context, the government in India, after years of repressing NGOs, has now reached out asking them to join forces to tackle the pandemic. There is an opportunity to organize resources and invest in community resilience but unfortunately NGOs globally do not have sufficient and timely access to the resources needed for coordinated front line responses.

Moving forward, there are a number of things to acknowledge.

  • One is that governments are not as prepared as they would like to be, or as they need to be. Collecting and distributing reliable data to citizens is one challenge, among many, that governments are still working on.
  • Additionally, collaboration and cooperation are more important now than ever. There needs to be an agenda to ensure that this type of effort continues and is strengthened in the future through more strategic coordination. While there are many calls for systemic change, the general sentiment displayed by public officials seems to center around containing the virus and protecting the economy. Although these are clearly sizable challenges in themselves, it is important to know what steps will be taken to include community voices and address the systemic flaws that led us to this point.
Sandra Ramzy

Sandra is a writer and community development professional who joined Fairspace in 2020. She is currently based in Amsterdam and works with a non-profit organization that supports local artists and creative thinkers.