COVID-19 and the third sector – main trends

How not for profits are learning to work and survive in the new situation

Elena Dolzhenko (journalist) and Anna Sevortian (Executive Director of the EU-Russia Civic Forum)


Carte Blanche

14 May 2020

The COVID-19 crisis has aroused conflicting views about the future of society and civil society across the world. On one side, there are those who believe it’s “everyone for themselves”, and think that the pandemic will push to one side ‘less important’ issues such as the environment or women’s rights. On the other side are several examples that “goodness and solidarity are spreading faster than the virus”. We don’t know yet in what ways the third sector (civil society) will change after the pandemic. But there are a few trends that are already evident.

Successful initiatives are being copied enthusiastically

There really are some good examples. In March the German press wrote about residents collecting food parcels to distribute to rough sleepers. Within a couple of weeks similar activities were reported in other countries, including Russia. In Germany hotels with no tourists to stay in them opened their doors to homeless people who needed to self-isolate. At the end of April, charities in Russia started paying for hostel accommodation for homeless people.

Globalisation is often blamed for the rapid spread of the pandemic. But globalisation and openness have been very helpful to not for profit organisations. If previously to learn from the experience of others you had to travel and spend time learning, now best practice is available with two clicks.

Technology helps

In EU countries and in Russia there are hackathons in which participants try to work out how to deal with the crisis and what will come next. 3D printing has become extremely important. A publication in Austria has highlighted how 3D printing has helped doctors. And in Russia 3D enthusiasts have been collecting money to make personal protective equipment (PPE) and other equipment to donate to doctors.

The professionalisation of the third sector had been a major problem even before the pandemic. Now it seems there is no point in talking separately about the importance of social initiatives: we can see how the IT industry has by itself come to the aid of civil society. We hope this trend will last beyond the crisis.

COVID-19 has exposed many systemic problems and forced CSOs to mobilise

At the beginning of the epidemic only a few activists were talking about how self-isolation and quarantine would threaten to unleash an epidemic of domestic violence, with potential victims forced to stay with their abusers. Now we can see how right they were. COVID-19 not only did not push gender issues onto the back burner, but has made it more urgent to deal with them. In this case again there has been a replication of successful international experience: just days ago several St Petersburg hotels have offered refuge to victims of domestic violence. Earlier we heard about similar initiatives in Germany, Spain, Italy and France.

The next step has to be by the Russian authorities. Consideration of the draft law on domestic violence has been postponed until the end of the pandemic. When the Duma returns to it, it should take account of the experience and recommendations that rights defenders put together during the pandemic.

People have got together to help hospitals and doctors

Some countries have already succeeded in ‘flattening the curve’ but on a vast territory from Italy to Russia, hospitals have been overwhelmed by the influx of patients. Governments were not ready for the hospitals’ needs for stocks of PPE. And in Russia, it turned out that suddenly it was not the responsibility of the state budget to supply doctors.  In this instance once again it was foundations and citizens who rushed to help. CSOs collect money to buy PPE and medical equipment, and some restaurants have made meals for medical staff, paid for by caring citizens or by food suppliers delivering food products gratis.

The crisis has added to the work of rights defenders

Digital surveillance, forced hospitalisation and compulsory employment of medical students in hospitals, increased checks on people’s movements – rights defenders are ringing bells about these and the problems with quarantine. Profiling agencies around the world are committing numerous violations rights. In Russia, the Agora Group opened a service providing legal advice linked to the pandemic in March. International organisations have been collecting information about human rights abuses and have set up leadership in human rights across the world. It is true that some limitations have to be placed on people during a pandemic. But it is clear that afterwards we will have to insist on reductions in these measures to comply with international norms.

For many people in the civil society sector there are concerns about the future for philanthropy. In the worst case there will be mass closures of CSOs and reduction in civic initiatives. Many foundations and projects are already in a state of penury. It is impossible to get equipment or pay operating costs because of exchange rate changes, or to pay for colleagues’ or experts’ work. It is especially hard for those which cannot transfer their operations on-line. Just days ago there was a plea for help from Elena Vakhrusheva, Director of the project “Naïve? Very”, which gives work to artists with developmental issues.

Recently some support was promised at the highest level in the state: the President promised at the end of April to provide 3bn roubles from the Presidential Reserve Fund to support socially oriented, charitable and voluntary organisations helping to deal with the pandemic. This is an important step but won’t solve the problem. Will this help go to groups supporting people rejected by society – rough sleepers, drug users and sex workers? Volunteers providing hot meals to homeless people have been arrested and fined. There are concerns that on the information level the coronavirus has distracted attention from other health issues from which adults and children are also dying.

Nonetheless there are grounds for cautious optimism too. In this stressful situation civil society, non-profit organisations and individual activists are looking to grow and trying to solve problems they never thought of before. We shouldn’t forget that in Russia initiatives which have become known all over the country have often appeared after a crisis. The Beslan tragedy in 2004 gave rise to the Naked Heart Foundation. The “Help Needed” foundation and the “Takie Dela” portal were established after the floods in Krymsk. The rules of the market don’t function in the third sector, so if existing CSOs do not survive the crisis, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be new ones appearing in their place, ready to solve the same problems.

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