Balancing support and criticism: Civil society responses to Covid-19

This blogpost is part of the Covid-19 Governance Mapping initiative, a collective effort to document the structures of national decision-making in the world’s Covid-19 response, and the actors involved. Together with experts from The Collectivity and a team of researchers, the project gathered data on over 20 countries, mostly for the period between April and July 2020. That data is public, and the blog series provides a first analysis of the findings.

By Boel McAteer


Across the world, civil society organisations have played an important role in responding to the Covid-19 pandemic since the outbreak in March 2020, but they have not always been included or able to input in decision making. Our mapping of the pandemic governance in the first few months of Covid-19 revealed patterns of centralising power to top levels of government in many countries. In this situation, civil society organisations have taken on both a supportive and a protester role in relation to governments, providing gap-filling services to those affected by the pandemic and measures in response to it, and attempting to draw attention to the negative consequences of decisions made by governments.

There are many examples of civil society organisations stepping into the pandemic response itself, often to extend health care services to those not reached by government responses. International development and humanitarian organisations have contributed funds and organised efforts to provide medical equipment as well as improving access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities for the public. This provides a gap-filling service, where government responses have not been deemed sufficient, or have failed to reach certain parts of the population, such as displaced people or minority groups. There are also examples where this kind of supplement service is provided in collaboration with governments, like for example in Ethiopia, where humanitarian organisations have supported the government’s procurement of personal protective equipment for health care staff, through UNICEF working directly with the Ministry of Health.

Alongside this supportive role, there has also been protest and criticism from civil society organisations. However, it can be very difficult for civil society organisations to directly express criticism against governments and their handling of the pandemic. In May 2021, at least 56 countries have pandemic measures in place that affect freedom of expression. Some of these are laws against spreading “misinformation” about Covid-19, which has caused prosecutions against anyone who publicly reports criticism against government responses. On top of this, many countries have had bans on public gatherings as well as curfews that make public protesting more difficult.

In this situation, where the ability to criticise governments is already limited, human rights organisations like Amnesty International have drawn attention to adverse effects on civil rights that reach far beyond the pandemic itself. The Judicial Council in Ecuador attempted to suspend all its services due to Covid-19, but had to backtrack on this decision since this would have removed the possibility to challenge any human rights violations. The Constitutional Court deemed in April 2020 that closing this office completely would be in violation of international obligations surrounding access to justice. Civil society organisations have played a key role in creating public awareness around adverse and disproportional impacts of decisions like this one.

Despite some successful challenges like this one, there appears to be a real risk that the space for civil society organisations is shrinking because of the pandemic, in a way that could remain after Covid-19 is no longer an issue. The National Assembly of Mauritius passed a new labour law in May 2020, under the pretext of addressing Covid-19 and other communicable diseases. No labour unions were consulted in the making of this law, and the law itself allows employers to bypass negotiations with trade unions and reduces workers’ access to mediation in case of disputes. This is an example of where governments have actively avoided involving civil society, while at the same time trying to reduce their reach and impact beyond the realm of the pandemic.

Civil society organisations have no doubt played an important role in addressing Covid-19 as a health crisis, as well as responding to adverse impacts of government measures put in place to deal with the pandemic. Despite this, the long-term effects of what appears to be a “shrinking space” for civil society in the post-pandemic world remain to be seen.