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Civil society responses in the wake of COVID-19

Posted on 04/08/2020
By Shem Ochola

Without doubt, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the lack of preparedness among states across the global north and south for a disaster of this magnitude. Decades of underinvestment in health and education has been laid bare. The unravelling of the institutions that underpin these sectors has been spectacular, exposing fundamental deficiencies in their capacity to deliver. It is no exaggeration to say that vast sections of the global population face further exclusion unless governments affect far-reaching reforms. An assertive and engaged civil society can help governments find solutions to these challenges by drawing from the experience of their grassroots constituencies.

Civil society organisations have so far been involved in a range of interventions, from direct service provision to engaging lawmakers to reform the policies and guidelines that govern responses to the pandemic. Within the Commonwealth, there has been enhanced engagement in Commonwealth Ministerial Forums by civil society. At a recent Health Ministers meeting, the Commonwealth Civil Society Policy Forum made a presentation on how digital diagnostic technologies can be used to achieve universal health coverage (UHC). Members are advocating the One Health approach, which looks at finding ways for the civic, private and government sectors to better communicate and work together to achieve UHC.

‘in poor rural areas and especially in the global south, the infrastructure for digital learning is not in place.’

As a leading member of the Forum, the Commonwealth Health Professions and Partners Alliance has been at the forefront of advocating for the implementation of UHC. In the wake of the pandemic, the Alliance has scaled up its advocacy, making proposals for mapping the use of digital technologies in health service and medicines delivery; using technology for better deployment of human resources; and development of model regulation, policy and standards for the use of digital technology, including addressing privacy and other human rights concerns. Articulation of these priorities has been an important first step. The next is to ensure their systematic implementation.

The wide application of digital learning in place of face-to-face learning is clearly a vital innovation that, in our post-pandemic world, is here to stay. But the effects of these changes can only be understood by first acknowledging the fact that, in poor rural areas and especially in the global south, the infrastructure for digital learning is not in place. We do not yet know who–or how many—are currently excluded from these new digital technologies. But a ‘one size fits all’ approach is undoubtedly a recipe for entrenching that exclusion. During this time of systemic change, it is thus vital that the Incheon Declaration and Framework for Action is adhered to. This commitment recognises the role of education as a key driver of development and provides guidance for implementing Education 2030—an essential prerequisite for achieving the promise of Sustainable Development Goal Four: equitable learning for all.

‘Civil society must be—and must be seen to be—a partner and ally to governments: working together to forge a path towards a more positive future.’

Tackling the challenges ahead will require substantial policy and institutional reforms. Without change, there is a real risk that the Covid-induced health crisis will become something much more serious and enduring: that it will lead to even greater inequality and instability; that it will stall our progress towards the realisation of truly peaceful and inclusive societies. Civil society must be—and must be seen to be—a partner and ally to governments: working together to forge a path towards a more positive future. The Foundation is seeking to pivot its own programmes to ensure that it is able to make a meaningful contribution to Commonwealth civil society as communities and countries work to repair and recover from the global pandemic.

Shem Ochola is Deputy Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation.

Civil society organisations engaged in responses to COVID-19 in Commonwealth countries are encouraged to subscribe to our mailing list for updates on our forthcoming grants call.