Cooperation and Coalitions: Civil Society Activism under the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all sectors of society and civil society, and peacebuilding organisations are no exception. In late 2020, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung invited the Japan-based NGO Peace Boat, in its role as the Northeast Asia Regional Secretariat for the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), to organize a series of webinars focused on issues of non-traditional security and COVID-19 in the region, seeking opportunities for collaboration. The first of the series focused on the impacts of COVID-19 on civil society activities in Northeast Asia. Moderated by GPPAC Northeast Asia Regional Liaison Officer, Meri Joyce, the webinar drew on the expertise of Man-kei Tam, Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, A-Young Moon, representative of PEACE MOMO in Seoul and Akira Kawasaki, Executive Committee Member of Peace Boat in Tokyo. Presentations were followed by an active discussion with around 50 participants joining from throughout Asia as well as Europe. The webinar covered themes including nationalism, inequalities within societies and impacts on international advocacy. It also highlighted the importance of the commons and community, as well as the economic impact of the pandemic on civil society organisations.

Hong Kong: Forms of Care Based on the Commons

Now a Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Dr Tam spoke of his experiences and observations while working with Amnesty International until August 2020. Setting the background, Dr Tam described a deeply divided Hong Kong where the government’s refusal to close the border with China led to medical personnel in Hong Kong going on strike for the first time. He noted how “the anti-extradition movement and the pandemic have led to a deep distrust of the government”.

Dr Tam gave two clear examples of responses from civil society that demonstrate new forms of connection to overcome differences in society and to offer care to the community. The outbreak of COVID-19 led to a scarcity of masks in Hong Kong and citizens queuing for hours to buy them at inflated prices. In response to the lack of a regular official supply of masks, local legislators and community organizers mobilised to secure masks from overseas, as well as produce masks locally to distribute amongst the population. Dr Tam shared the specific example of a press conference featuring a local legislator and a local producer, Yellow Factory. Thanks to such efforts the distribution of masks stabilized. According to Dr Tam, these acts “offered a sense of togetherness through the protection materially given by masks”.

The second example Dr Tam shared was that of a community fridge placed on a street corner in a low-income area with a high population of immigrants. The fridge, with the words ‘take what you want and give what you can’ written on it, contained food, teabags, masks and other items. Dr Tam said he believed “this act is a form of care based on the idea of the commons”, and explained that these examples were ways of the community to respond to the crisis, particularly significant at a time when “civil society often felt powerless in the face of the pandemic”.

Korea: Rising Nationalism

In comparison to a mistrust of the government in Hong Kong, the government response to the pandemic in Korea has been widely praised, particularly in the mass media. Yet, A-Young Moon spoke of a rising nationalism there. “We are now using the pandemic to promote our government over other governments,” she said, adding that this was creating a “crisis of democracy”. Comparisons have been made between the responses of Korea and other countries, in particular Japan, creating an atmosphere of competition amidst existing tensions. With the rush to develop a vaccine, competition between countries has become even more clearly visible.

At the same time, Ms Moon also observed inequalities within Korean society based on nationality and citizenship. In response to a scarcity of masks, the government developed a system for people to buy them cheaply using their registration codes as Korean citizens. It was only when groups working with refugees and migrant workers mobilized to push for masks to be made more widely available that those without Korean citizenship were able to gain access. One participant in the webinar originally from Hong Kong and now living in Seoul shared her own experiences, adding her uncertainty as to whether vaccinations would be administered to non-citizens as well.

While the government response in Korea has been effective to a certain extent, it has been an emergency response. Ms Moon expressed her concern about a loss of commons and community during the pandemic. The idea of common security to create a resilient society has been lacking; this has also been worsened by the lack of funding for civil society organisations as the general population struggles from the economic impacts of the pandemic, leading to fewer donations were fewer. It is not only individuals, but whole organizations that are struggling for survival.

Japan: Civil Society Coalitions

Akira Kawasaki, a member of the Executive Committee of Peace Boat, gave his perspectives from Tokyo. Mr Kawasaki said that the pandemic had “disproportionately affected vulnerable people, such as aged, disabled and immigrants, and those who used to suffer even before COVID-19, including women and those in poverty”. Mr Kawasaki explained that civil society groups working within Japan, especially those working with those most affected by the pandemic, have formed coalitions as an effective emergency response. Like Ms Moon, he expressed concern about the economic impact of the pandemic on civil society organisations, saying that he was scared for their future.

Mr Kawasaki also spoke about impacts on international advocacy activities, with the example of work on disarmament being delayed with all meetings postponed or moved online. Civil society participation in meetings at the United Nations or meeting diplomats in person is a key part of advocacy work. “If those meetings are all conducted in online format only within the diplomatic community, civil society engagement will be severely undermined,” he warned. However, the increased use of virtual meetings also has its merits. It is easier for more people, in particular youth, to participate virtually without the need for expensive international flights. The work by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), of which Peace Boat is an International Steering Group member, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August was an example of a successful civil society campaign without physical travel, but solely through online formats.

Discussion: Human Security and Cooperation Across Borders

The initial presentations by the speakers were followed by questions and comments from participants which looked deeper into issues already highlighted as well as raised new points. One question focused on the role of science in public policy-making. Mr Kawasaki explained that in Japan, the relationship between science and politics had been a controversial issue even before the pandemic, since the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Scientific opinion at times seems to be influenced by politics, and this appears to be happening again with the pandemic. Another participant raised the question of privacy in regards to data collection with track and trace policies like that seen in Korea. Dr Tam responded with the need for civil society to create a response to digital surveillance as governments become more intrusive into citizens’ daily lives.

Looking at points raised by Ms Moon and Mr Kawasaki in their presentations, speakers noted that many of the issues of concern had existed prior to COVID-19, with those most vulnerable suffering disproportionately. As Dr Tam noted, “it is only in these kinds of occasions that we realise there are a lot of fault lines along race and class”. Responding to a question from a participant, Mr Kawasaki spoke about the concept of security, in particular the need to change from military security to human security. Civil society organizations have been quick to highlight the need for a change in priorities for government spending from the military to healthcare. While this has been taken up by the mass media in Japan, it has as yet had little effect on actual policies and budget. Mr Kawasaki said that while the government in Japan has been supporting its citizens through subsidies, the response was not sustainable and it was unclear how long national or local governments could continue with these emergency measures. Ms Moon said that although the pandemic is an emergency situation and is rightly being responded to as such, there needs to be a more long-term approach, one which builds more resilient societies based on commons and community. She also emphasised that even if vaccines are widely administered and COVID-19 is controlled, the climate crisis makes scenarios similar to this pandemic more likely in the future, and for that we must build resilient societies.

The speakers expressed their concern about the future of civil society organizations and called for greater cooperation. Most civil society organisations have been severely impacted by the economic climate with a loss of funding through donations or other means. Mr Kawasaki said “serious economic downsizing means that financial conditions for all NGOs in Japan, like in other countries, will become problematic in the coming year”. Ms Moon said this meant a loss of the commons, community and a loss of space for discussion and debate. In a final point, she noted that with the emergency response to the pandemic there has been little opportunity and space to reflect on what was actually happening, and that she appreciated the space during the webinar to do just that. As Mr Kawasaki highlighted, cooperation amongst civil society organizations in East Asia in response to the pandemic has not yet been enough; the webinar concluded with the question of what civil society can do to foster further cooperation across borders.

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