Mobilising the community during a crisis

22 June 2020 | Posted In: #135 Winter 2020,

As a paper developed by the Sydney Policy Lab explains, community action is fundamental to a successful move toward a post-COVID future.

The initial debate around the COVID-19 pandemic focused primarily on the response of government decision-makers and technical experts. Debate raged as to the extent of social distancing and lockdown restrictions, and the scale of governing authorities’ response to the economic perils of the ongoing crisis.

It is equally important, however, to recognise that government action by itself cannot control a pandemic. The attitudes, behaviour and expectations of individual citizens and communities are fundamental to the move to a stable future. But if community mobilisation is so important, what does it look like in practice?

The Sydney Policy Lab asked a series of internationally respected experts in public health and citizen science what actions citizens themselves can take, and what government and other institutions have to do in order to support citizens to play their part in the future.

They suggested five dimensions of citizen action.

Real agency: One of the gravest dangers during a pandemic — beyond infection itself — is the widespread sense of hopelessness and helplessness it can induce as people confront a challenge far newer and larger than those to which they are accustomed. Hopelessness erodes self-esteem, wellbeing and mental health, and makes it psychologically harder for people to continue to comply with strong social distancing requirements, and to recover once it ends.

The antidote to despair is action. Providing people with the space to make meaningful individual contributions to the overall collective task of tackling the virus can take a variety of forms. These can include: individual action — where people monitor and report their own symptoms and provide feedback on the lived experience of ongoing policy interventions; neighbourhood-based engagement in appropriately designed mutual aid efforts to support community members — especially those who are older and more vulnerable to infection; and maintained and expanded participation in civil society organisations, for the purpose of connection.

Utilising technology: Technology, especially smartphone apps and social media programs, make the participation required to provide agency and control far more efficient than in previous generations. To be truly effective, however, such technology needs a connective quality — enabling a two-way flow of information and ideas, not just encouraging passive citizens to receive information from officials.

Significant efforts must also be made to tackle the digital divide in most established democracies, including Australia, where at present more affluent and more socially connected individuals and families access new technologies straightforwardly, while others have much poorer connectivity.

Radical openness: To be effective in building community support for action, the data and synthesised information that is gathered both by governing authorities and by citizens should be made widely and easily available to all. Access to such data enables citizens to understand the nature of where the virus hits, the extent of community transmission and other core factors in the virus’s trajectory. It enables us to understand how different communities are affected by the virus, and by its associated consequences, such as detrimental mental health outcomes.

It also enables the more theoretical models on which much government decision-making has been based to be compared with concrete empirical data, allowing an informed public debate to follow. Such debate may be uncomfortable for governing authorities in individual instances, but in the medium-to-longer run the widespread sharing of and analysis of data and information enables citizens to develop a deeper trust and engagement with the complex and difficult decisions made by health authorities.

Effectiveness in communications: Even with the greatest level of citizen engagement in debate and discussion, instruction from governing agencies always remains a fundamental part of pandemic control. As the pandemic ages and its social and economic consequences become more intense, extremely subtle instructions may be required, reopening some areas and sections of society and economy while continuing to restrict others.

When communities are not consulted in a sensitive way about the severe restrictions being put in place, civil unrest can result as already seen in India and Israel. Citizens can aid these efforts by avoiding click-bait and being responsible in disseminating only trusted information amongst their networks.

Building social solidarity: One of the distinctive challenges in shaping a citizen-led response to COVID-19 is the sharp differential in mortality rates between age groups, with older people being far more likely than younger people to experience severe, potentially fatal, symptoms. In some parts of the world this led to some younger people failing to adhere to social distancing restrictions or otherwise to take the situation as seriously as required. This underlined the fundamental importance of inculcating a broad and deep sense of social solidarity and responsibility during the time of a pandemic.

Citizens need to be able to restrict their own behaviours even when they are unconvinced of the direct, personal benefit of doing so. Such solidarity is unlikely to result from the hectoring or scolding rhetorical style adopted by some political leaders, but rather from celebrating the better elements of national stories, by celebrations and rituals that enable people to display their social connection and by leadership that directly embodies the attitudes and behaviours required.