Skip To Content

Everybody loves a good pandemic

The shrinking of civil society's space to hold governments accountable


In writing this post, I couldn’t resist the temptation to paraphrase the title of P Sainath’s book Everybody Loves a Good Drought, an excoriating case study of systemic corruption in India and the total disregard of government officials for poor people. It shows how a drought that impoverished vast swathes of the country was used as an opportunity by self-serving and corrupt politicians and local government officials to siphon away funds. At no stage did they feel accountable to the poorest people, who were meant to be helped by these funds.  

There are parallels with the COVID-19 crisis.

Even in ‘normal’ times, governments may seek to control their citizens by curtailing civic space and freedom to express dissent. In many countries, spaces for dialogue with the government are already tightly constrained.

But now, amid the pandemic, governments are taking unprecedented measures with very little consultation. The space for civil society to hold them accountable is shrinking. Social distancing has made it almost impossible to interact with policymakers and parliamentarians. Elected representatives in many parts of the world are weakening the political norms and culture that feed healthy democracies. The judiciary aids and abets this self-harm. Hard-won spaces for dialogue and influencing are under threat. My concern is that this could easily become the new normal.

Weakening accountability

Governments across the globe have ignored requests from their citizens to protect them better, until it is too late. In many countries, citizens have had to step up and look after each other, be it making masks, stocking up food banks, or looking after those who have been forgotten or ignored by their own governments. People have largely followed government instructions on social distancing and adhering to lockdowns, even if it meant not meeting loved ones, visiting sick relatives or attending funerals to say goodbye to friends and family members who have died.

Despite civil society adhering to its side of the social contract with governments, it’s depressing to see how little governments themselves have reciprocated. All too often, governments don’t seem to feel they need to listen to or be accountable to their own people. Rich and poor countries have made little effort to understand how their poorest and most vulnerable citizens think or feel about their government’s decisions and what the impact of their actions might be, in their own country and beyond.

Big decisions that could potentially affect millions of children and marginalised people across the globe have been taken hurriedly without wider consultation – take, for example, the US withdrawing support for the World Health Organization, the UK Department for International Development being merged with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or India being admitted into the Security Council as a temporary member. All these decisions will have far-reaching implications for the most vulnerable people. We are yet to see the impact of such choices, and it will fall on civil society to mitigate the brunt of the impact of such outcomes.

Shrinking space to influence global health policy

The World Health Assembly in May this year was a rather subdued affair limited to just two days. The virtual meeting was a shadow of what would normally have been a week of civil society bustling about the Palais des Nations, running events, engaging on a broad range of critical health matters, and using every opportunity to try to influence WHO officials and heads of states. While civil society did have an opportunity to feed into the resolution, there was very little time to speak to missions or to negotiate with member states. The time constraints over the two days also meant civil Society organisations were not able to provide verbal statements (though for the first time their written statements were included in the official record of the meeting). What worries me is that it is always civil society that gets cut off.

Another example of governments and institutions short-circuiting consultation with civil society is the recent Global Vaccine Summit on 4 June. Civil society organisations had spent the 18 months raising the profile of the event and actively advocating to bilateral donors on the importance of fully funding Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, for the next three years.

Normally, the two-day summit would have been an opportunity to showcase the importance of civil society as a partner to progress Gavi’s mission to increase the equitable uptake of vaccines in low-income countries. Civil society organisations would have also shared their views at the various side meetings and events to further influence Gavi’s priorities to ensure life-saving vaccinations reach children everywhere with strong primary healthcare systems. 

But due to the pandemic, the planned 2-day London event was reduced to a 3-hour virtual one, which was mostly pre-recorded. Priority was given to heads of states. Civil society participation was limited to a single speaker.

Time to escalate civil society inclusion

These are times when existing space for civil society engagement in accountability and governance is rapidly being eroded.  The danger is that any new initiatives may automatically exclude civil society. 

New mechanisms are being set up in the global space to address the pandemic and to ensure the availability of therapeutics and vaccines. Accountability and community involvement must be central to any such efforts. The Access to COVID-19 Tools Accelerator (ACT-A) is a global collaboration, under the leadership of the WHO, to accelerate the development, production and equitable access to new COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.

Gavi and the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) are leading on the COVID-19 vaccine pillar, with Gavi taking the lead to ensure access for all to any new vaccine. Accountability mechanisms for ACT-A are yet to be set up and civil society organisations are urging WHO, Gavi, CEPI and other partners to ensure participation of civil society in the governance and decision-making processes of the ACT-A. To date, there has been limited consultation with civil society organisations in the set-up of the ACT-A platform. Yet, in order to ensure the voices of those most likely to be forgotten or ignored are heard in global and national programmes, involving civil society and local communities is critical.

It’s only possible for any new process or mechanism to reach its intended goal by enabling civil society to participate in meaningful ways right from the start. That’s the only way we’ll build the trust of communities and ensure that medicines and vaccines not only reach them, but are used by them. As community champions, civil society organisations need to be more vigilant than ever before and be prepared to mobilise, engage and act quickly.

The Black Lives Matter movement has shown us that out of adversity comes hope and new possibilities. We must push back against the marginalisation of civil society and exclusion from our rightful place within global and national accountability and governance spaces, processes and mechanisms. We must build new alliances, take bold and different actions, and develop a fearless spirit.  

Listen to local communities