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Covid-19: Key insights for civil society

Over the past several weeks, Covid-19 has affected every aspect of life around the globe: individuals, families, institutions and organisations. All countries around the world are trying to defend themselves by imposing several restrictions and preventative measures. This has had a serious impact on the operations of and collaborations between different societies around the globe.

The virus continues to decimate families, upend governments, crush economies, and tear through the social sector. Fears about the future are rising, certain officials are talking about this being the biggest crisis in our lifetime, and at the same time, insecurities are growing. Structures and systems that were built by humans and believed to be safe, have been shaken by these unexpected circumstances and many things that we took for granted are beginning to dissolve. The “old” no longer exists and the “new” is not yet really tangible. Covid-19 has created a time full of questions, uncertainties, testing and redesign.

How should civil society respond to the evolving crisis? How can NGOs, NPOs, CBOs, foundations, social businesses, charity organizations, and social justice advocates react? What unique insights and capabilities can civil society bring to bear on the problems the world currently faces?

Key insights for civil society

This crisis will change the world we currently live in. But this does not mean that the world will get worse: can this crisis also be an opportunity for civil society to create a more equitable and just world? Even if we might be in the beginning or in the middle of the crisis, there are already several key insights and takeaways which are essential for the engagement of civil society actors:

1. Vulnerabilities of the global complex systems

The interconnectedness and vulnerabilities of global complex systems that have made the modern world function in the last decades - have never been more apparent. Suddenly a small virus can bring a whole world to a lockdown and create economic recessions. It shows us, how fragile the global system is. And complexity will continue to be an important factor in a world that is constantly changing. With increased complexity, a new approach to management is needed to increase future resilience and make respective systems functional again. Those who handle complexity well are best able to react to the unforeseen because they have more room to navigate. On the other hand, Covid-19 also shows us that the solutions are often surprisingly simple – even in the case of highly complex challenges.

2. Ongoing Transformation: Digitalization

Even before Covid-19, civil society realized that we are undergoing a profound transformation, and it might be the biggest in the history of human beings. Besides climate change, biodiversity, changes in values, migration, robotics and genetic engineering, well-being for all, digitalization has become one of the major driving forces for transformation. Due to the physical distance that humans have to maintain as of Covid-19, we are experiencing an unprecedented boost in decentralized work and telecommunications. This will accelerate the transformation - and further increase complexity. How can we as civil society benefit from this boost in the future? How can we use this boost in digitalization to save our environment and increase social justice?

3. People’s behavior can change everything

The past few weeks of Covid-19 and the respective restrictions have shown us that people can change everything. These restrictions are mainly targeting our movements and interactions, and in an unbelievably quick way, people have adapted to them as a global community. Within a short time, social distancing has been internalized and self-quarantine is being practiced. People have changed their behavior to protect the vulnerable and to make sure that society is not collapsing. Covid-19 has shown us how quickly people can change social systems. At the same time, it has also indicated that individual fear seems to be the driving force for such a quick change in behavior.

4. New dynamics in civil activism

The situation around Covid-19 has created an unbelievable scaling in civil activism. In the context of volunteering, millions of people around the globe are supporting their communities. People are coming together in new voluntary organisations: raising money for emergency relief, collecting medical supplies for hospitals, and delivering aid to those who do not have any access to social protection. Everybody tries to contribute. Many civil society organizations have repurposed themselves: suddenly human rights organizations are delivering food and medical supplies to the most vulnerable groups.

5. New advocacy work: fighting disinformation

In the context of advocacy – fighting disinformation seems to be a new area of work for civil society. Disinformation and wrong narratives about the virus and its impact are spreading quickly: in some places, it has also been intensified by political leaders. At the community level, civil society organisations are currently engaged in community education in order to debunk conspiracy theories, which sometimes creates xenophobic violence. At the political level, civil society needs to push back against certain governments, who make it difficult for journalists and civil society organisations to openly challenge official statistics, narratives, their interpretations and impact.

6. Collaborative leadership

The new dynamics in activism have brought people together through collaborative action and leadership. Much of the new activism emerging is based on collaborative action, together with the private and government sector. People are realizing the interconnectedness of the three sectors of civil society, market, and state. They are realizing that with collaborative action, problems can be solved quickly and also realizing that we as people and citizens belong to all three sectors at the same time. This emerging learning can be the driving force for new civic domains and new alliances that we will need in the future. On the opposite end of collaboration will be separation: resulting in increasing polarization as different groups may try to use the instability arising from the virus to push their own agendas.

7. The importance of empathy and agility

The Covid-19 virus will not be the last one we humans have to deal with: other viruses will follow. And if it is not a virus, it will be another global phenomenon which could affect all societies. Nevertheless, the current learning from Covid-19 indicates that there seems to be two major beacons that we need to internalize. (i) Empathy at all levels – towards yourself, other people and the environment. The virus has given us time to rethink ourselves. And empathy seems to be one of the outcomes: it is empathy towards ourselves and other people, which creates the behavior change and scales up new ways of civil activism. The awareness that we as humans are part of a shared eco-system has suddenly increased and forced us to put our ego aside. (ii) In line with empathy, the crisis around Covid-19 has also shown us that agility is the second beacon, which puts empathy into action. It has been agile and flexible responding structures that have created coherent alliances between local government structures, local civil society organizations, and local enterprises. These alliances seem to be very effective and impactful in a decentralized organizational diversity context, but not in centralized top-down responding mechanisms.


These are only a few key insights and there are many more to explore. Recognizing them would be essential for our further engagement. Civil society can use such key insights and lessons learned from Covid-19 to embrace new opportunities and overcome challenges such as hunger, poverty, social injustice, and climate change. This would help us create a more equitable and just world. This could be our momentum. We can either be the creator of the future we would like to see, or we can reject any responsibility and hope that things will be like they have been before. The choice is ours.


About the author:

Dirk Reber is committed to the civil society sector for more than 25 years. With his passion, positive energy, optimism, and autonomy, he likes to see people grow and find their true meaning of values. His international experience in different leadership positions throughout Asia and Africa qualifies him as facilitator, trainer, and coach: preferably with you in one of the CSA courses, otherwise as an outdoor trainer. Dirks's center is his family and nature. He facilitates with full engagement the following courses: Leadership in Civil Society, as well as Organisational Development, Leadership and Team Management, Fundraising for Civil Society, and Increase your Awareness.


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