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Solidarity in the time of COVID-19: Civil society responses to the pandemic


States must partner with civil society as second wave of COVID-19 hits countries

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, civil society organisations responded nimbly and effectively, providing frontline help and defending the rights of people across the world. A report released today by global civil society alliance CIVICUS, ‘Solidarity in the Time of COVID-19’, highlights the irreplaceable role of activists, NGOs and grassroots organisations during the pandemic and calls on states to work with civil society to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and create a better post-pandemic world.

Drawing on interviews with civil society activists and leaders, CIVICUS’s new report outlines the many ways civil society has responded to the crisis. Civil society took on the crucial role of providing essential services when there were gaps in healthcare provision and psychological support; civil society organisations (CSOs) provided food, personal protection equipment (PPE) and essential sanitary items, often filling the void when states were slow to respond.

Civil society also stepped in when official communication channels failed to give people accurate information about how to protect themselves and their families from COVID-19. By using creative methods such as street art, and working in diverse languages, CSOs were able to disseminate important information to different communities.

“Often civil society responded when others failed to act, working to fill gaps left by states and businesses. In country after country, a diverse range of civil society groups scrambled to meet the needs of communities most affected by the crisis,” said Mandeep Tiwana, Chief Programmes Officer at CIVICUS.

“In the face of these challenges, civil society adopted a can-do mindset, mounting a positive response characterised by flexibility, creativity and innovation. Even CSOs that normally prioritise advocacy for rights rapidly reoriented to providing essential supplies and services, including food, healthcare, information and cash support, to help sustain communities. At the same time, their role in curbing corruption and exercising oversight over the use of public resources remained crucial,” Tiwana continued.

Civil society devoted a large part of its response to helping at risk and excluded groups adversely affected by lockdowns and policies put in place by governments to curb the spread of COVID-19. Locked indoors, women faced greater risk of gender based violence, while LGBTQI+ people, migrants and other minority groups were smeared as sources of infection. Civil society rose to the challenge, campaigning for policies to protect excluded groups and creating remote services to help vulnerable communities.

In Mexico, for example, the National Network of Shelters expanded the staffing of its 24-hour helpline and provided extra assistance through social media. In Lebanon, the Resource Centre for Gender Equality secretly embedded a helpline number in online videos to reach more women at risk from domestic violence.

When states partnered with civil society, or when governments created an enabling environment for the work of CSOs, the response to the spread of COVID-19 was much more effective. This was highlighted in Somalia, where Action Against Hunger successfully partnered with the ministry of health to promote awareness about COVID-19, using social media and other communication channels to reach vulnerable and excluded groups. Social Good Brasil, a Brazilian human rights group focusing on technology, boosted statistical evidence on COVID-19 by connecting data scientists with public officials.

“Lessons need to be learnt from how governments managed the first wave of COVID-19. As many countries prepare for the second wave, one thing is clear: in all future responses states should recognise the value of civil society, and work to enable and partner with it. Doing so will lead to more joined-up and effective responses that respect rights,” said Tiwana.

“The hard lessons must be learned from the mistakes made under the COVID-19 pandemic to equip the world for the next series of challenges to come. We cannot go back to business as usual,” he continued.

Civil society organisations have provided road maps to create more just, equal and sustainable societies including calls for accountability through respect for democratic values and institutions, state responsibility for provision of quality basic services such as health, redistribution of resources and progressive taxation to provide social protection for the vulnerable, and enhanced focus on environmental protection rather than militarism. Civil society has also urged international cooperation and respect for people-centred multilateralism.

People-led, mutual responses were key during the pandemic. Community action sprang up across the world as neighbours, schools and individuals worked together to meet the needs of vulnerable people, and those most at risk of infection, sharing community resources. Many protests went online and people found alternate, creative ways of making their voices heard that respected physical distancing. CSOs also took on the role of rights defenders in countries where authoritarian leaders used COVID-19 as a pretext to clamp down on civic freedoms.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, civil society has demonstrated resilience, creativity and adaptability; CSOs persisted in helping people to make their voices heard at a time when many governments were suppressing dissent and depriving citizens of their fundamental freedoms.


For interviews with CIVICUS or the civil society voices mentioned, please contact: and


CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world. CIVICUS has more than 10,000 members worldwide.