Civil society in Ukraine mobilise to respond to COVID-19, defuse tensions


A vibrant civil society is crucial in times of crisis, both for providing emergency services and building social cohesion while doing so, writes Inna Topal from International Alert in Ukraine.

The ongoing lockdown introduced in Ukraine in mid-March 2020 to fight the spread of COVID-19 virus turned out to be a stress test for the Ukrainian government, both at the national and local levels.

In most cases, the lockdown demonstrated the inability of authorities to provide basic services, such as access to healthcare and education, administrative services, and anti-crisis interventions to protect businesses and workers' rights. Meanwhile, a lack of sufficient objective information about the pandemic not only exacerbated existing tensions, such as those between ethnic groups or between internally displaced people (IDPs) and host communities, but also created new ones.

International Alert’s partners in various parts of the country report increased tensions between citizens and local authorities, centred around the inability of the state to provide basic services or protect the most vulnerable. The most acute protests and areas of tension have been in the agricultural sector, as quarantine restrictions have disrupted the livelihoods of low-income informal sector workers, while the closure of markets meant that small-scale producers were unable to sell perishable goods. Aggression towards healthcare workers and education workers has also been reported, as both sectors struggle to adapt to the demands of the pandemic and lockdown measures, as well as negative attitudes towards and even attacks against workers returning from abroad who are perceived to have ‘brought the virus into the country’. Many of these workers are men, who have now switched roles from family providers to dependents.

At the same time, as with the outbreak of war in the East of Ukraine in 2014 that created new vulnerable groups, including IDPs, veterans and their family members, the crisis has reactivated a spirit of self-organisation and self-reliance. Networks of volunteers and civil society organisations that were active in 2014-2015 have remobilised to provide emergency services to vulnerable groups, and work at the grass-roots level to prevent existing tensions getting worse, and the marginalisation of new vulnerable groups.

There are numerous examples of passionate and creative responses from volunteers and activists groups of varying scales at local, regional and national levels. One NGO mobilised local businesses to provide medical workers with free transportation to work during the lockdown. In Odesa oblast in southern Ukraine, the NGO Committee of Voters of Ukraine , brought together different public authorities and civil society representatives to discuss urgent community issues. This platform provides a safe space for people to discuss their needs and concerns and to hear the perspective of representatives of the state authorities. As part of their activities, they initiated a contest of children drawings to support medical workers, explaining how much pressure medical workers face, thus increasing empathy towards them.

The lockdown, however, became a significant challenge for NGOs, who needed to rapidly introduce new management systems and team coordination methods, maintain contacts and communicate with their target audiences while delivering quality services. For some, this was quite a stressful time to master digital technologies under conditions with poor internet connections, while target audiences lacked access to mobile technology or adequate skills to use it. Joint context analysis sessions that Alert facilitated not only provided an opportunity for partner NGOs to share and discuss the different dynamics in their communities and solutions to challenges caused by the pandemic, but also demonstrated how technology could help make discussions more engaging using interactive tools like online break-out groups and interactive chats.

In addition, some CSOs that we have worked with have faced the problem of their previous or current activities not suitable for the crisis conditions and requiring changes at the strategic level. NGOs working with women were required to shift the focus from women’s empowerment, to providing consultations and raising awareness of women-victims of gender-based violence (GBV) due to increased domestic violence in quarantine. Others shifted focus from initiatives increasing the inclusion of different groups in community life to providing emergency response by mobilising crucial protection resources. At the same time, experts found that COVID-19 and the quarantine opened a window of opportunity for increasing NGOs’ impact and capacity at the local level in terms of attracting expertise and implementing innovative solutions that were previously blocked by certain inertia of government bodies.

The pandemic forced CSOs to be creative and innovative and develop or adapt a wide range of tools for working in quarantine. For its part, Alert has adapted tools on context analysis, networking, and advocacy, to be provided online. We have also developed a social cohesion toolkit that we use to help CSOs understand and shape their role in contributing to social cohesion and building community resilience to crisis. Through ongoing mentoring to our partner CSOs across Ukraine we are helping them adapt existing programmes so that they can support vulnerable groups in a time of crisis and build community cohesion whilst doing so.

Most of these new approaches and roles of civil society organisations remain ad-hoc and unrecorded. Alert has been working to document the experiences of CSOs so that successes can be replicated, and failures can be learnt from.

Through this we hope to demonstrate how a vibrant civil society is crucial in times of crisis, not only to respond to immediate needs, but also to maintain social cohesion and peace at a time when it is under stress.

International Alert, in partnership with Thomson Media, are implementing the Reweaving the Ukrainian social fabric: Supporting community-led peacebuilding and advocacy project, funded by the EU.

> Read more from our series on COVID-19 and peacebuilding