Activists from around the world speak out on their responses to COVID-19

Photo by Press Eye.

Photo by Press Eye.

FOR those of us who are social isolating in response to COVID-19, the world can seem very narrow, but the reality is that this is a global pandemic.

Social Change Initiative (SCI), which is based in Belfast, reached out to 10 social change activists around the world to ask them to share their reflections and experience.

Despite their very different circumstances, what they have in common is a determination that change for the better is not only possible, but necessary.

Now is the time to think forward and plan long-term. Hopefully, their perspectives stimulate further thought and action.

South African, Dustin Kramer, supports advocacy around government budgets and resources in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

South African, Dustin Kramer, supports advocacy around government budgets and resources in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

In many ways, COVID-19 brings issues of inequality to the fore, but also thrives on them.

Recent demolitions of homes in informal settlements in Cape Town for example – demolitions which are a constant in South Africa – now take on new meaning.

People with nowhere to go face the aggression of the state and are made homeless in the middle of a national lockdown where everyone is supposed to stay at home.

The injustice and inhumanity of government actions, spatial segregation, inadequate housing and unemployment are all thrown into stark relief.

But people are responding and we are seeing new forms of collective action.

People from many parts of society – far beyond the usual civil society actors – are coming in and supporting, such as in community action networks that are forming across Cape Town.

South Africa has a strong civil society, and there are ordinarily few ways for people to enter this space from the outside.

We are seeing the value and possibilities of expanded collective action of this kind. Beyond this crisis, this should be encouraged.

Right now it is too early to tell exactly where things will go over the coming weeks and months in South Africa. But let’s not lose sight of the global nature of both the crisis and its possible outcomes.

Few historical moments offer the potential for major global change such as this.

While there is real fragility in terms of the future – not least the possibility for things to get far worse – there is also the possibility for us to push for long-term, major change across the world in ways that may not have been possible before.

Stephanie Leonard is a UK based organiser working with Act Build Change.

Stephanie Leonard is a UK based organiser working with Act Build Change.

The work has become more intense, people are suffering and are unable to sustain efforts due to the terrifying uncertainty and panic the virus brings. This is especially true for those who already suffer from mental ill-health.

I am learning more and more about the lives of the people I organise with, there is a stripping back of 'persona' and more 'telling it as it is'. Domestic violence is a big problem.

Everything feels rapid. Some of that feels useful and some of it is people’s way of coping.

To be still is to notice and not many people want to notice the chaos they cannot control.

Some of us need to slow down, to trust that other groups have the rapid response 90% of rough sleepers right now are in safe accommodation.

We are proving what is possible. Some of us need to be focusing on sustaining that.

There are lots of lessons from the work. Music, art and play will always matter. They help us face the world courageously.

People are more capable of action that we often think. This is the moment to build effective campaigns and a stronger immigrant/migrant solidarity movement.

It’s clear that the 'impossible' like income for all, shelter for the homeless, the fast tracking of health care are all possible

COVID-19 is offering a moment for us to work more collectively.

How do we ensure the positives remain, and the exposure of weaknesses and the goodwill of humanity to meet those weaknesses increases?

There is a lot of opportunity to organise around better wages and care for the most underpaid.

Those I organise with say sector fragmentation is the biggest issue.

Now is the time for a unified response and narrative. Can we be humble and say it was all of us, rather than one or two of us?

Eleni Takou from HumanRights360, is working on migrant rights in Greece.

Eleni Takou from HumanRights360, is working on migrant rights in Greece.

The outbreak of COVID-19 in Greece has served to radically exacerbate an already problematic situation.

Refugee camps have scaled down most services, meaning that any kind of psychosocial, legal or other support has to wait until after the pandemic.

Two camps are already in 'hygienic quarantine' because of confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Living in an overcrowded camp with sub-standard conditions contradicts any plans for 'hygienic quarantine'.

For undocumented migrants living in cities, there is even more fear. There are people who haven’t left their homes for weeks to avoid the risk of arrest.

This is very worrying in terms of access to public health.

As could be expected, vulnerable people migrants and refugees, detainees, Roma were the ones most affected by the COVID-19 situation, not so much in terms of transmission but more by the state response.

Any settlements where people reside in crowded and bad conditions have been targeted as potential epicentres of the disease, with xenophobic rhetoric prevailing, although it has repeatedly been proven not to be the case.

Activists must re-invent ways of social action. It’s not only about the internal operation of our organisations, it’s mostly about finding new, efficient ways to respond to new challenges.

Many of us have been used to the 'traditional ways'. Now, we need to find ways to use technology more creatively to fight for change, equality and cohesion.

Physical distancing should not mean social distancing!

It’s clear that the world will not be the same after this. It’s our duty to imagine new strategies for longer term social change. I cannot say if I am hopeful or not, but this is a one-way road.

 Saiful Huq Omi is a Bangladeshi photographer, filmmaker, activist and educator.

Saiful Huq Omi is a Bangladeshi photographer, filmmaker, activist and educator.

When things started to really look bad, I shortened my US trip and flew home to Bangladesh.

It was only after I completed my two-week quarantine that I realised how bad it really is. I began to feel more insecure and to hold my five-year-old closer, knowing the story is the same for billions of people across the world.

Being an artist who mostly has to be in the field to produce work, I don’t always find enough time for myself, and to reflect on my own work and life.

The pandemic has given me the time to reassess, to look deeper and think about how I could have done things better.

I have just lost a large assignment, an organisational project was stopped even before it could have started.

We had to stop all classes in our institute. So, it’s a disaster for my/our professional life. Finance is becoming an issue.

The lessons are endless but with the existing world order and the new liberal economy in place, should we expect significant changes? Probably not.

People can now see the world better. They know, if they fail to protect nature, if they fail to live with nature, what the cost can be.

So, we now have a much-concerned group of majorities. The memory of the pandemic will surely shape our future, how we work, our social and personal relationships.

If now activists, people’s organisations, collectives, artists, lawyers, farmers, and people from every walk of life join together, and learn a few basics that we have been forced to forget – that borders are meaningless, we are all from the same wide world, we are all connected, we deserve governments that are more accountable and we are not here to make the 1% richer, then we have a future – and a much brighter future.

 Darren Richardson is a community development worker with the Sperrin Cultural Awareness Association based in Magherafelt in Northern Ireland.

Darren Richardson is a community development worker with the Sperrin Cultural Awareness Association based in Magherafelt in Northern Ireland.

Most of our peacebuilding/community development work has frozen and we’ve shifted to providing advice, food and other physical resources to the community.

This has brought challenges in terms of community structure, collaboration and co-ordinated approaches/response.

Whilst we have always encouraged and supported communities to be pro-active we’ve now become very reactive ourselves.

There is an element of irony in it all – 'we are all in this together' and we are going to come together 'by staying apart'.

I believe this pandemic will change how we think about ourselves and the world around us – to be prepared to expect the unexpected.

Sustaining continued investment in our health service must be a priority.

The social, community and voluntary sector must also have more sustainable support. These are the groups that have supported their communities throughout the pandemic.

The impact of COVID-19 will fall most heavily on communities with the fewest social and economic resources to alleviate its effects.

Whilst activism is resilient it needs to be protected and supported if it is to respond properly to the needs of families with insecure jobs, housing, low incomes, single parent households and abusive relationships.

Going forward it's important that we take our lead from disadvantaged grassroots communities.

Considerations around mental health are needed. We already had a huge problem here which is in danger of further spiralling. With current access to help and support being restricted this is a huge concern.

We need to harness all the support we can for vulnerable communities.

Zahra Al Barazi, is a human rights lawyer working in Turkey.

Zahra Al Barazi, is a human rights lawyer working in Turkey.

This pandemic adds an additional layer of stress and challenge for the stateless and refugee communities I work with.

They were already going through so much. Like many on the wrong side of the power imbalance, they will be more susceptible to the health risks, lack access to healthcare, can’t self-isolate and feel the full weight of the socio-economic impact.

In the short-term, I have had to put a hold on many of the activities I normally do and try to think creatively about how to adapt plans and goals.

On a personal level, it is yet to sink in. Most of my consultancies have been cancelled. Emotionally I am still distancing myself from thinking about potential consequences.

I hope I am not being naive by wishing that because everyone has passed through this crisis together, it will bring a heightened sense of empathy. Many more of us will understand better what it means to be going through a crisis that is outside our control, to have – or not have – a safety net.

Moving to online solidarity and meetings has meant I have seen new participants and members join the work – people who wouldn’t have been able to access face to face meetings and conferences.

This was a wake-up call to how exclusive my way of working was. I mustn’t forget this lesson.

I also see myself engaging more with groups and individuals working on different issues, given that we now have a common challenge. I hope this cross-cutting solidarity continues.

I hope this global event will force us to break away from the belief that the status-quo was the only way.

Not forgetting the negative consequence, history lessons may show this time as a gateway between one world and another. I hope our efforts in trying to foster positive social change will make sure the next is better.

Sean Brady is a community organiser working with the Participation and Practice of Rights organisation in Northern Ireland.

Sean Brady is a community organiser working with the Participation and Practice of Rights organisation in Northern Ireland.

The current crisis has frustrated many traditional community organising tactics but it’s also laden with opportunities to progress social and economic rights.

An unprecedented upsurge in solidarity has created community relief networks to provide material, social and emotional support in the absence of, or in conjunction with state efforts.

Emergency legislation and policies are expanding the social security net and adopting a 'leave no-one behind' approach in the interests of public health.

The speed at which legislation has been introduced, policy changed, and state resources mobilised are prefigurative glimpses of the type of change that’s possible.

Following a comprehensive review of our existing campaigns we will be launching the following initiatives in the coming month:

  • An ‘All-Ireland Free Internet Connectivity campaign.
  • A new ‘No-One Left Behind: a COVID-19 Community Rights Monitor’ website documenting the experiences of marginalised groups, profiling the activities of progressive groups, exposing the activities of key private sector companies who have profited from the austerity policies which have left our society so vulnerable, charting legislative and policy developments in the public interest and hosting analysis by key activists.
  • A series of webinars convening activists and experts to develop a new framework for sustainable public housing in Belfast.
  • A 'Corporate Network' website which uses information from UK Companies House and OpenCorporates to assist activists and investigators who are researching private power.
  • The first in a series of services for NGOs and social movements using web-scraping technology to provide up to date information on public and private sector initiatives on our key issues.

Our existing campaigns on housing, social security, mental health and asylum rights are shifting to focus on key private sector actors who are benefiting from inequality.

We (PPR) will be working with Corporate Watch, Centre for Investigative Journalism and individuals/organisations with expertise in digital organising to quickly embed these essential skills within our movement.

Mohamed Omar works with refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland.

Mohamed Omar works with refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland.

There is no hiding it; COVID-19 has made the invisible more visible.

It has brought to the fore structural health and societal inequalities – the prevalence of co-morbidities amongst black and minority ethnic communities, the high level of public facing roles (work in sectors where social distancing is less possible), under-employment (therefore lower incomes and less access to resources, including information) and housing over-crowding.

In the past five years, over 3,000 refugees have been resettled in Scotland – we know these are people needing urgent medical treatment, survivors of violence and torture, and women and children at risk.

They are going through this potentially re-traumatising experience with language barriers, away from their loved ones currently in refugee camps or stuck in war zones.

It would be naive to suggest that post COVID-19, life will resume as normal. At an individual and community level, we will go through grief, PTSD and fear.

We also need to remember that back to normal doesn’t work for everyone.

Whilst reflecting and re-defining our future, we must take our resilience, generosity and resourcefulness with us.

We must take a close and inconvenient look at structural inequalities. We must pay more attention to our global interdependence and connectedness. We must understand that space and time are suppressed – a virus that started in Wuhan has impacted people from Aberdeen to Zanzibar.

We must be alert to the virus of populist politics of hate and division, notorious for exploiting crises and vulnerabilities to divide people and communities. We must reject and respond with strong community cohesion, and remember the sacrifices of our brave front liners and how resilient and strong we are when we all work together.

Finally, we must demand transparent and accountable leadership which can instil optimism, a clear sense of direction and the ability to manage a post COVID-19 society in which it will be important that no one is left behind.

Nicola Browne is a social justice activist working in Belfast.

Nicola Browne is a social justice activist working in Belfast.

As the pandemic grew, I launched a new people-powered campaigning organisation for Northern Ireland, called Act Now. There’s already been some impact.

First out of the gates was a rapid response campaign started by a member calling for local based health diagnostics company Randox (which had received £23 million of public funding) to cease selling its COVID-19 testing kits online at a high price and instead to work directly with the NHS.

Within the week, Randox stated it would now be working to provide COVID-19 tests to the NHS.

With the possibility of further lockdowns in the future, we will need new ways to work with communities when we cannot physically be present with them.

The current pace of things requires a quick response when opportunities for change emerge like they did with the Randox campaign.

We can build fruitful alliances, which add value and respect the work that’s gone before.

While Act Now’s cutting edge digital campaigning tools are vital for campaigners, we must always recognise our humanity, our need for joy and our urge to be in community with each other.

Northern Ireland has a long tradition of innovative activism, often in the toughest of times, and driven by people in the tightest of spaces.

The COVID-19 pandemic can be a catalyst for change that puts the vulnerable first, prioritises the sustainability of our planet and the accountability of our decision-makers. But it will not just happen on its own.

We will need every tool to fight for and shape that future.

Deepa Iyer is a US based community activist and lawyer working with the Building Movement Project and SolidarityIs.

Deepa Iyer is a US based community activist and lawyer working with the Building Movement Project and SolidarityIs.

My work focuses on strengthening movements and organisations working for social change, equity and solidarity in the United States.

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the depths of the racial and economic disparities facing people of colour and immigrants here.

It is no longer possible to deny or dismiss the ongoing effects of white supremacy, colonialism, capitalism, xenophobia and other tools of oppression.

The data and stories reveal that black communities are facing disproportionate rates of illness and death, Latinos are reporting high rates of unemployment, Native Americans are struggling to find access to health care, and Asian Americans are dealing with harassment and scapegoating.

At the same time, organisers and activists are confronting new challenges given physical distancing and shelter-at-home guidelines that limit direct action, person-to-person organising, and relational power-building.

As the crisis unfolds, I’m often reminded of another national emergency – the 9/11 attacks.

Then, as now, we must balance our inclination for rapid response efforts with a long view to the future we want to create.

We must reject all forms of racism and othering, and not let fear and uncertainty shake our integrity. We must be vigilant about government overreach and the exclusion of vulnerable communities from policies.

We must dismantle the systems of white supremacy and xenophobia that are at the root of the pandemic’s devastating effects on communities of colour.

We must ensure that under-resourced organisations and leaders closest to the most vulnerable communities receive the long-term support and resources they need now and into the future. And we must sustain the current culture of global solidarity even after the urgency ebbs.

I am hopeful that we can create more equitable, connected, and inclusive communities so long as we are bold and committed to each other, especially during the difficult moments when it might be easier to compromise, ignore, or forget.

  • Social Change Initiative (SCI), which is Belfast-based and was formed in 2015, works locally, nationally and internationally through a core team with experience of grassroots activism, peacebuilding, advocacy, strategic philanthropy, politics & media.
  • SCI also works to provide a bridge between the worlds of activism and philanthropy.
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