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Humanity in Action Inspirations: 8 ways to do activism during the COVID-19 pandemic

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The timing of the COVID-19 pandemic has affected us all, although to a very uneven extent. For some, it has meant endless fear for their relatives’ health (and their own), stress related to the loss of a job and livelihood, or quite the opposite – having to work after-hours at top speed.

For others, it is the lack of access to the appropriate equipment and a stable Internet connection sufficient for remote work or studies, caring for children 24-7, or being confined with an abusive partner. Yet, there are some who found time to develop new passions, slow down the pace of life, and build deeper and more meaningful relationships. With each subsequent month of the pandemic and new government restrictions, we are all forced to reorganize our work and studies, as well make changes in our daily lives, including how we engage socially. However, if you find yourself in a situation where you can devote some of your time and energy to others, here are 8 tips on how to do it safely. This post was inspired by the discussions we’ve been having in recent months with members of our activist network and here are some of the initiatives they recommend and try to implement themselves.

1) Take care of yourself!

Take care of yourself as much as your current situation allows. If you can, try to get good night’s sleep, maintain a well-balanced diet, get outdoors, and exercise regularly. We know that each of these activities can be a privilege. But meditation can also be your way of exercising. Even just taking five deep breaths and paying attention to oneself, can make a difference. Think about what calms you down, what makes you happy, and try to prioritize your wellbeing in such challenging times. Taking care of oneself is the first step to taking care of others. And if you are battling anxiety, about the pandemic and its consequences, use the Mental Health Support Network, created by our Fellow, Marcelina Rosinska.

2) Take care of others

Wear a mask, keep physical distance, disinfect your hands. Many people feel anxiety, often rising to an unspeakable level, about their lives, as well as the effects of sudden changes that occur in relation to the pandemic. Try not to worry them further. Wearing a mask not only protects you from infecting others but is also an expression of social solidarity and a signal that the well-being of others is as important to you as your own. At the same time, it is worth recalling that children under the age of five, people with respiratory problems, people with mental disorders, moderate, severe, or profound intellectual disabilities, and those who, due to their state of health, are not able to put on and take off the mask themselves, are exempt from wearing the mask.

At the same time, make an extra effort to overcome social distance. What the pandemic exacerbates is the importance of social solidarity and our relationships – family, neighbours, friendships. Many support groups were set up in Poland during the pandemic, which connected people who had never been in contact before – Visible Hand, Support for Support, Dog During Corona. This pandemic will end one day, but the relationships will remain.

The pandemic and its consequences also mobilize people who have not been socially involved before. This may be the first time they are writing committed posts on social media, signing petitions, supporting their neighbours, and helping strangers. Taking care of others is also including them among those who had been socially active before.

3) React

The pandemic exacerbates violence and exclusion.

According to the Centre for Women’s Rights, from 400 to 500 women die every year in Poland because of domestic violence. Although statistics for Poland have not yet been generated to help assess the impact of the pandemic on the incidence of domestic violence for 2020, analyses from other countries such as Spain, Brazil, and the United Kingdom indicate that in April and May, organizations supporting victims of domestic violence recorded a significant increase in the number of reports. However, the home confinement does not only affect the perpetrators and their victims, but also potential witnesses of violence. If you hear or suspect, that someone is being harmed, respond by calling the police or the Centre for Women’s Rights in Poland.

Many people have suddenly lost their jobs or access to support institutions, particularly those experiencing a homelessness crisis. The pandemic has also fatal consequences for migrants and refugees, because of restricted mobility and border closures, but also because of the global economic situation. Conspiracy theories blaming various social groups for triggering the pandemic – Chinese, Jews, or LGBT+ people – are growing in strength. At the same time, many governments around the world are making scapegoats out of individual minorities for their own political gains. If you feel particularly close to a certain minority group, check on them, and see whether they need extra support.

4) Include

Paradoxically, a pandemic worsens the digital exclusion of children and young people. Suddenly, computers and the Internet must be used by a great many people at once, as the pandemic forces us into remote work and e-learning. In pre-pandemic times, access to computers was limited for many children, but also for teachers. In the current situation, in some families, several children must share the same computer, while simultaneously their parents need it for work. The solution came from the group called #Uwolnijzłomka (#FreeUpYourOldPC), which is made up of activists: programmers, computer scientists, employees of various foundations, NGOs, and schools. The group aims to connect people who need a computer for children’s homeschooling with companies, foundations, and individuals who can provide such equipment. If you have a functional computer at home, that you no longer use, join in. You can find out more about the initiative here.

5) Create, edit, add – support Wikipedia!

The social impact of the pandemic is already being felt today and will only exacerbate existing problems and divisions, which is why it is crucial to maintain social commitment. When creating this year’s Fellowship in its online form, we were wondering within the HIA Poland what activist action we could propose to our Fellows, which would foster a community of committed people and not lead to clicktivism and oversimplification of the message. We decided on Wikipedia, which turned out to be a brilliant idea. Why?

According to Wikimedia Statistics, Wikipedia has 21 billion hits per month, making it one of the most visited sites in the world. Creating and editing content on Wikipedia, therefore, gives one the opportunity to reach a huge number of people with important, proven and source-based information! Wikipedia is often the first source of information on a given topic. It is used by people from all walks of life, regardless of their political standing. By adding or editing the existing entry on Wikipedia one does not only have the potential of reaching a large number of people but also can target a truly diverse audience!

Creating an entry on Wikipedia requires knowledge of the topic one is describing. Entries are subject to a review system, so the information provided must come from reliable sources. This is an activity that has great educational potential, both for those who read articles on Wikipedia and those who create them.

As noted by our Fellows, Wikipedia is a tool that protects people, organizations, and events from being forgotten or ‘misrepresented’, by documenting important aspects of history. The creation of Wikipedia entries enables the creation of content from a non-Eurocentric and dominant perspective. If you want to create a new article or edit an existing one, please contact one of the Wikipedia Guides.

6) Protect the climate, this is still an important issue

Pandemic news has dominated the media worldwide. Every day there are updates on skyrocketing infection rates and deaths because of Covid-19. Although there is now no space in the media and public debate to talk about melting glaciers, this does not mean the climate issue has become less pressing. Quite the opposite. As the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres notes: both issues require a strong response from governments, institutions such as the UN and people. Both issues need to be addressed with the same sense of urgency. However, unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change will remain with us for decades and requires continuous and decisive action. How, then, can we act on the climate at this daring time? European Ombudsman, Professor Adam Bodnar, when asked in June during an open webinar at the Academy of Human Rights about effective ways of doing things, said: “first and foremost, look for creative forms of action”. For the participants of 2020 Warsaw Fellowship, such a discovery turned out to be the activism of the shareholders, about which the speaker of the Academy, climate activist Monika Sadkowska, says as follows:

“When you buy even one share of a listed company, you have the right, as a minority shareholder, to come to the General Meeting of the Management Board and ask the big company questions about the links between its activities and the climate crisis, social inequalities, loss of biodiversity, or human rights. The Management Board must provide an answer. This is the contemporary story of David and Goliath. An individual can stand as equal to the stronger. And there is a chance of winning.”

You can read more about shareholder activism here.

7) Resist and express anger

The pandemic has encouraged abuse of power, posing a threat to human rights – as has been pointed out by the Ombudsman. This ensuing crisis is a convenient pretext for silencing critics and consolidating power. According to Human Rights Watch, since the beginning of the pandemic, many countries – including China, Thailand, Turkey and Venezuela – have penalized those who criticised government strategies to fight the virus, including journalists, activists, and health workers. Successive governments are using the pandemic to intensify digital surveillance, which is used, among other things, to supervise foreigners who are in the country or to identify and detain national and religious minorities (e.g. Uighurs in China). To others, the coronavirus has provided a convenient reason to limit political demonstrations, as is currently the case in Poland. On the very day when the so-called Constitutional Tribunal ruling on the unconstitutional nature of abortion due to serious defects in the fetus was announced, the government also introduced a ban on gatherings of over five people. In a pandemic, political capital is being brought together by those in power, creating divisions, polarising and excluding, so your actions, your resistance, and your anger matter. What can you do?

First of all, watch closely your politicians. If you do not know how to monitor their actions, or how to access data in a specific area, contact Watchdog Poland. They will help you. Secondly, write emails to politicians or decision-makers on issues that are important to you. And lastly, you can always create, and promote, socially-committed content on social media. According to the think-thank called Pew Research on social attitudes towards political engagement in social media, for marginalised groups social media is an important forum where they can express their opinion, address an important issue, or find allies. If you notice their perspective is missing in the public debate, make sure they are represented.

You can even get creative and write protest-songs. The interpretation of the Italian anti-fascist guerrillas’ song “Bella ciao” adapted for the Women’s Strike was viewed on Youtube more than 55 thousand times in only two days! The protest songs were also the starting point of the Chór Klimatyczny (Climate Choir), which managed to organize a concert for the climate amidst the pandemic and is now recording in a studio. Queerowy feminizm (Queer feminism), an Instagram profile run by a member of our activist network, Anna Wiatrowska, has gained over 30k followers over the course of several months, raising issues that are not very popular in Poland, which concern minority groups, such as white privilege or class division.

8) Seek inspiration for action among people with disabilities

Shutdown and isolation, which is a new and difficult situation for the fully able people, has been a pre-pandemic daily reality for many people with disabilities. Having experience of being active in advocating for their group, people with disabilities often get involved in other social issues, possessing extraordinary knowledge and creative ideas on how to act remotely. For example, in 2017, as part of the Women’s March in Washington, DC, activists for people with disabilities created a virtual Disability March for people with disabilities and the chronically ill, which allowed them to protest virtually against the restriction of women’s and civil rights imposed by then US President, Donald Trump. One of the people participating in the ActVirtual: Making Public Activism Accessible (D. Bora et al., 2017) appreciated the unusual idea of a proxy marching on behalf of people unable to take part in a physical protest – she wrote their names on a piece of paper, put them in a shoe and symbolically marched with them.

Remember: Take care of yourself and others, react and act. Your commitment matters. When the pandemic makes it impossible for us to act following the usual patterns, it is time to create new ones and see in them a chance to change social reality. Good luck!