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10th-Sep-2020

Citizen Bodies In The Era Of Social Distancing

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By organized citizen body, we mean civil societies and NGOs. People are organized through these community organizations to face any eventualities. That is now happening worldwide, some citizen bodies are campaigning for mass awareness against corona with universal health appeal 'prevention is better than cure'.
The role of organized citizen body is to disseminate life-saving messages. It has now been encouraging people to 'wash hands frequently, use antiseptics to clean household items, wear masks in public places, avoid meeting people with colds and coughs, observe physical distance, avoid crowded places, and stay home as much as possible.'
Community Development organization is to conduct the local public awareness. Community leaders share 'life-saving information' with the rest of their community during small gatherings, where attendees observe strict social distancing and other prevention measures. Imams of mosques also disseminate messages through mosque loudspeakers to reach all residents. Thus the people are being communicated to 'refrain from shaking hands, kissing, and hugging' for the safety of their loved ones.
Corona has created havoc taking heavy toll of lives in many countries. Special victims are the people from USA, Brazil Italy, Spain, England, Germany and other countries. Victims are also from Asian countries like India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Reports are plenty about the gravity of corona situation and tensed people trying to get rid of it. To cite a report, 'The coronavirus pandemic is pushing everyone to reassess their daily routines. There already is a whirlwind of predictions on what will come next, and what this might mean for the economy, politics, or for social interactions as we know them'.
Most of such predictions may be just speculations, and some may indeed materialize. The fact is we mostly don't know. What we do know, however, is that a post-coronavirus Covid-19 world is coming, which will be different from that of yesterday. What we currently see all over the world is an intuitive reaction by states to withdraw within themselves. This is a clear sign of a pushback against globalization. Instead, we see a reinforcement of state authority and re-imposition of hard borders against further tides of globalization. The clout of international and regional organizations seems to be waning, whereas isolation, insulation, and inward-looking policies of states are gaining ground. What we are witnessing daily is 'governments rushing to adopt emergency measures, centralizing power, or enhancing surveillance mechanisms over their citizens.'
Civil societies are up and doing to create mass awareness. Civil society has launched social movements in an era of social distancing. 'To what extent do people participate in civil society organizations?' a report thus answered.
In an age when Covid-19 is demanding that we reassess some very basic social interaction practices, such as shaking hands or hugging, is civil society destined to morph into something else? More poignantly, in an age when social distancing may become an everyday norm, perhaps for years to come, what will happen to large gatherings mobilized by civil society organizations? Music festivals, student gatherings or youth activism? What will happen to social movements, street protests? If the very basic precondition behind organizing protests and social movements is pulled under our feet, how are the people's voices going to be heard?
This is not to sound alarmist, but rather to ponder on the changes that civil society may experience naturally in the years to come. Civil society and social movements continue to galvanize authentic drives for change. They are probably the most serious and enduring threat that authoritarian regimes face. Until very recently, the world was bustling with protests. For many, 2019 was the year of street protests. From Chile to Hong Kong, from Armenia to Algeria, people from all over the world were demanding an end to corruption, more accountability and equal rights.
However, in the last couple of months the world has gone quiet and there is hardly any voice of protest that can be heard. Surely, these are welcome developments for autocrats the world over. No music is more soothing for their ear than the sound of silent streets and squares. But human instinct to speak up is undoubtedly going to find a way to be heard yet again. In fact, already there are spots of resistance and social mobilization happening. Although the above-mentioned rallies in Hong Kong have paused, recent polls have shown that a clear majority of the residents demand the resignation of the city's leader. At first, it may seem that tougher times are ahead for civil society organizations. Although there may be a will, the practicalities of mobilization and organization have suddenly encountered hindrances. People are asked to stay home, and even when they are allowed to venture outside, ideally a two-meter distance should be observed. But, as seen from the examples provided above, civic activism is alive and finding novel ways to express itself.
What is also quite likely to happen is that a lot of such activism is bound to be transferred further onto the virtual world. Social media, apps, smart phones etc. have already played important roles in galvanizing protests. One mistake that governments should not do is to assume that the coronavirus crisis will help to kill off civil society and social protest. Those who do make such calculations may risk replacing their regime with a kind of coronacracy - meaning, a political system that uses the coronavirus-related measures to stifle opposition and civil society. This may only lead to bottled-up frustration that could eventually result in social unrest. What should be understood and accepted is that the people's desire for change is ever-lasting and this desire will inevitably find novel ways to express itself in the future despite and because of the coronavirus-induced restrictions.

(Dr. Mozumder is Pro- VC, BUP and Dr. Mashreque is a Professor (Retd) of Chittagong University).