COVID-19: It's time for civil society activists and journalists to work together

Italians protesting during COVID-19 Pandemic (Keystone/EPA ANSA)

“Civil society organisations and the media need to work together to make sure that the right decisions are made by governments during the Covid-19 Pandemic,” says Nadejda Dermendjieva, Executive Director at the Bulgarian Fund for Women. “This will ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable people in society are heard.”

Dermendjieva spoke alongside four colleagues at Is space closing for civil society in global health?, an online webinar  organised as part of the 73rd World Health Assembly Week on Tuesday 19 May. The speakers explored the role of civil society organisations in the Covid-19 response. The webinar was co-organised by the Geneva Graduate Institute’s Global Health Centre, STOPAIDS and Medicus Mundi International.

“Local, national and international civil society organisations have long played an important role in advising governments on short and long term global health goals,” pointed out Mike Podmore, Executive Director of STOPAIDS and the Chair of Action for Global Health. “This is even more important during the Covid-19 pandemic, because governments are responsible for protecting the country, and they need to be held accountable for the decisions they make.”

“But certain governments are taking this opportunity to seize power, closing the space for NGOs and other civil society organisations,” highlighted Dermendjieva. “This can be seen in Bulgaria and other eastern European countries. We need to make sure that civil society activists are not silenced through the implementation of sweeping new laws which respond to COVID-19.”

How can civil society voices be heard?

This is where journalism comes in, pointed out Mercy Korir, Medical Doctor and Journalist at KTN News, Kenya: “Journalists need to stand up and demand answers. They need to work together with civil society organisations to make sure that their voices are heard. The government response needs to be effective, and health systems must be able to handle a pandemic.”

Gargeya Telakpalli, a Research Associate at the People’s Health Movement, argues that this is especially important for human rights groups and marginalised civil society organisations. “The media provides a medium through which marginalised civil society movements can be represented. It ensures that people with different objectives and goals are coming together to make effective decisions, taking into consideration opinions from the Global South. This is essential if we want to tackle Covid-19 on the global scale and if we want to prevent future pandemics.

How has the 73rd World Health Assembly Week helped?

“The 73rd World Health Assembly week is a step in the right direction toward greater civil society engagement,” pointed out Thomas Schwarz, the Executive Director of Medicus Mundi International, referring to the WHO meeting of member states Monday and Tuesday. He noted that some 83 organisations provided statements to WHA on a variety of issues related to Covid -19 in different parts of the world: “Although there is no doubt that more work need to be done to make sure everybody is included, it proves that there is hope for the future.”