When the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global pandemic in March 2020, nations around the globe started closing their borders. In many parts of world, including New York City where I live, life for many became suddenly unrecognizable with partial to full lockdowns and restrictions of movement. The rapid spread of the virus across communities, cities, nations, made clear how interconnected the world we live in has become and how interdependent we are. As the virus started affecting us all regardless of borders or walls, this crisis reminded us of our common humanity and how our lives are so reliant on reciprocal support.
Despite this, COVID-19 has posed a great challenge to the social cohesion within countries and communities as its impact has reached deep into our society, well beyond implications connected to the health sphere. Increased instances of hate speech and stigmatization of certain groups unjustly perceived to be associated with the spread of the virus drastically increased. Similarly, violent extremist groups across the ideological spectrum appear to view this global pandemic and the “new normal” created by the crisis as an occasion to exploit. With a significant increase in online and social media engagement, some violent extremist groups have utilized this as opportunity to spread propaganda and advance online recruitment activities. With youth being particularly impacted as many are confined at home with no physical access to school while experiencing a radical reduction in leisure activities along with lost employment opportunities, extremist groups have taken the opportunity to exploit their feelings of uncertainty. Compounding dynamics, while governments struggle to cope and respond adequately to the effects of the pandemic, these groups have been increasing their spread of disinformation and conspiracy theories, ultimately further undermining trust and uncertainty in government authorities.
Addressing all this has placed nearly insurmountable pressures on governments already struggling with the challenges brought forward by the pandemic. In this context, an all-of-society approach is needed more than ever and the role of civil society is essential, particularly at the community level.
In my work, over the past years, I have had the opportunity and honor to work closely with civil society organizations around the world committed to preventing violent extremism and contributing to the reduction of sectarian violence. I have witnessed firsthand their essential roles in assisting vulnerable populations and adapting responses, often in creative and innovative ways, to the local community context. In many circumstances, by serving as one of the main communication channels, especially for marginalized communities, they have demonstrated the potential to support social cohesion in moments of crisis. During these trying times, it has been powerful to see how civil society organizations, including those led by youth, have quickly mobilized themselves through volunteerism, running awareness campaigns countering misinformation and hatred, and staying at the forefront of keeping communities connected and informed.
During the first months of living this “new life”, I remember reading an open letter written by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel Laureate and the President of Liberia, during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014. Reflecting on the current situation and lessons learned from the past outbreak she wrote: “Fear drove people to run, to hide, to hoard to protect their own when the only solution is and remains based in the community”. Through my professional work complemented by my recent engagements with my co-Class 30 Peace Fellows and the peace practitioner instructors with the Rotary Peace Program at Chulalongkorn University, my convictions and dedications are even stronger that CSOs at the community level are essential and must be supported as part of an all-of-society approach needed to overcome challenges posed by this pandemic.
Alessandro Girola – Italy
Rotary Peace Fellow – Class 30Read More