This story was originally published by Eurasianet.
Although the coronavirus pandemic has been slow to hit Eastern Europe, Russia and Central Asia, the spread of the virus is accelerating, exposing the region’s underlying instability and causing the biggest disruption since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
National responses to COVID-19 in the region have been patchwork – from dynamic government-citizen alliances in Georgia and Armenia, to expanded surveillance and judicial pressure in Russia, Azerbaijan and several Central Asian countries, to Belarusian President Lukashenka prescribing vodka, tractor rides and sauna visits as curatives. Tajikistan and Turkmenistan are in denial about the threat.
The crisis is proving a multi-pronged stress test for the region’s civil society. With most countries ill-prepared for the pandemic, struggling public health systems, flimsy social safety nets and distrust in the authorities running rampant, the challenges are overwhelming.
Despite years of state pressure, which has marginalized and isolated civil society in many countries, civic groups are stepping into the breach, providing services for those in need and showing the effectiveness of social engagement, solidarity and selflessness.
Throughout the region, NGOs, charitable organizations and local initiatives are pivoting to meet the new demands. Spontaneous citizens groups are forming and mobilizing to help the elderly, support poor families, distribute food, collect donations, run information hotlines or provide psychological support. A region still mired in post-Soviet paternalism is seeing an explosion of rare volunteer engagement, boosting new forms of horizontal ties at a time of growing power verticals.
In Belarus, as in other countries, civic groups have joined together to create an online platform allowing users to donate to hospitals or volunteer. In Kyrgyzstan, a website helps citizens to self-test first symptoms, while bicycle volunteers deliver humanitarian aid and medicines to high-risk citizens.
In Georgia, the government has been praised for taking swift measures, and a range of inspiring civic initiatives are stepping in to fill gaps in social services, often allying with social media experts. A new Facebook group, Let’s help the Elderly, ballooned to 30,000 members in just two weeks and has reportedly raised $30,000 for needy seniors.
In reformist Armenia, NGOs and media outlets are working closely with the authorities to mitigate effects on vulnerable groups and local business. Tapping into public trust of the government, the Ministry of Finance even opened an account where citizens can donate, collecting the equivalent of 1.6 million euros in support of government efforts against the pandemic.
Throughout the region, independent media have new headaches, as advertising is collapsing and journalists’ movements are restricted by public health measures. But many outlets are seizing the moment, providing reliable information and growing their audiences. Volunteers are stepping in to translate important health information into minority languages in Georgia, and popular bloggers in Central Asia are doing their part to share vital public health news as well as advice for bearing the isolation and boredom of quarantine.
The rapid shift to online services is proving a challenge. Hampered by a lack of funds, training and experience, many initiatives are struggling to shift to smart tools and civic tech to reach their home-bound communities. But increasingly, many NGOs are adapting and making first strides. In Moldova, a collective of coders is preparing an online hackathon to develop open source solutions to problems caused by the pandemic. Telegram channels are multiplying, with the legal advice platform set up by Russia’s Agora in high demand.
Platforms for online education are also seeing a heyday with new initiatives mushrooming. On the Kazakh Bilimland website, students can find their school’s curriculum and study at home, while a Kyrgyz YouTube channel offers fairytale audios for young kids. A Georgian NGO providing internet service and laptops to underprivileged high school students has seen demand spike as the move to online education has exposed the disparities in connectivity among rural and poor students.
For teens, Armenia’s TUMO center is offering learning labs on everything from song-writing to programming to filmmaking in quarantine.
The sudden rush to online formats is also forging unexpected alliances between civil society and IT communities. In Ukraine, the independent tech sector was among the first to set up a crowdfunding platform for doctors. In Bishkek, tech-savvy experts have set up an “electronic IT staff center” offering “quick and effective IT solutions” to both government and private initiatives working to stem the pandemic.
The enthusiasm and skill with which civic initiatives, volunteers and engaged citizens have responded to the coronavirus pandemic in Eurasia is proof that a resilient civic sector, essential for healthy societies in the best of times, is indispensable in a crisis. The creative, problem-solving potential of these civic groups will be needed for a long time, as today’s health emergency unfolds into a protracted socio-economic crisis. The question is whether governments will seize the opportunity to coopt this potential and see engaged activist groups as partners, or use the epidemic as an excuse to ratchet up the pressure on them.
Barbara von Ow-Freytag is a journalist, political scientist and adviser at the Prague Civil Society Centre.
Photo by Etienne Girardet on Unsplash