Civil society actions & dreaming big in the face of Covid-19

Zara Rahman

During the current crisis, there are a lot of demands competing for civil society’s time and attention. Though many of these demands may seem new, a great deal of them are actually exacerbated issues with long histories that have now become too big for society to continue ignoring. For individuals and organisations who have been working on these issues before, it can be both frustrating and somewhat justifying to see newfound attention on entrenched systemic injustices, and, for everyone concerned with social justice, it can be hard to know where to direct our attention and limited resources. 

With that in mind, I wanted to explore some of these issues–from authoritarian power grabs and expanding surveillance structures, to deadly mis/disinformation and sketchy public-private partnerships–and the ways they’re important for the future of civil society’s work at the intersection of data, technology and human rights.

Above all, it’s important to hit a balance between meeting immediate needs created by the global health and financial crisis and continuing civil society’s work that was ongoing prior to the coronavirus’ spread (and which remains relevant in its midst). Despite an influx of funds to support civil society’s work explicitly on Covid-19-related consequences, many of these interrelated challenges go far deeper than immediate fixes we can implement over the next 6-12 months. Instead, they will require movement-building, collaboration and attention to the inequalities of power and resources that are more deeply responsible for the insecurity we see today.

Misuse and removals of hard-fought-for rights and laws

Accelerating already existing trends towards less government transparency, multiple governments are using the pandemic as an excuse to either delay or remove their Freedom of Information obligations, including Romania, Serbia, Moldova, Hungary and various states in the United States.

In Bangladesh, the much-criticised ‘Digital Security Act’ has been used to imprison members of the public who have criticised the government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, with reportedly more than 50 people having been arrested for spreading rumours about the spread of Covid-19 since March 2020. Similarly, in Tunisia, two bloggers were arrested in April for accusing local authorities of corruption in the distribution of Covid-19 aid. 

What civil society is doing about it:

Lies, damned lies, missing data and statistics

As many government leaders are scrambling, we’re seeing an old trend pop up–manipulated data and statistics, fashioned to give the ‘best’ possible picture of what’s going on. 

Journalists report that China is likely manipulating their figures of Covid-19. The state of Virginia in the US is combining results from viral and antibody tests in the same statistic–despite those two tests answering different questions about the pandemic–thus producing “information that is impossible to interpret”. In the UK, a distinct lack of clarity has led to uncertainty about whether the figures being provided are for tests or for capacity. 

Among the messy data is also a distinct lack of data on issues that really matter. For example, how are already marginalised communities being affected by Covid-19? Reportedly “only 7% of all worldwide reports into Covid-19 deaths recorded ethnicity”. (Though, of course, there are often good reasons for not including ethnicity data.) In the UK, “Black men are more than four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than their white counterparts.” In India, there’s a distinct lack of data on the impact of Covid-19 on migrant workers, making understanding the scale of the problem extremely difficult. Similarly, in Pakistan there’s a lack of data on informal and formal sector workers, which makes holding the government to account for their promise on financial aid tricky. 

What civil society is doing about it:

Speedy roll-outs of widespread surveillance infrastructure

In India, Global Voices reports that the government has increased surveillance in response to Covid-19, and is reportedly considering using “Aadhaar-integrated cameras” that would capture body temperatures and facial images and combine these data points with other individual-level data in the Aadhaar database. 

Much attention has been focused on the roll out of contact tracing apps, but some apps, like ones proposing to use QR codes in Malaysia for example, seem to be ill-placed to track close-contact. If these apps are made mandatory, the fines for not using them will serve to further marginalise people who might (rightly) fear surveillance from those in positions of power. Even if they are voluntary, both contact-tracing apps and other surveillance technologies might introduce “a surveillance infrastructure we could be left with for decades to come.”

In the city of Recife in Brazil, reportedly “cell phone tracking data associated to at least 700,000 telephone numbers is being used to coordinate actions encouraging social isolation”, and on a federal level, the Brazilian Ministry of Communications has partnered with with cell phone operators to allow “agglomeration monitoring and provide personal information on the gender and age of tracked users”–actions that would be worrying at the best of times, let alone with a president who has expressed indifference at the scale of the pandemic in his own country

Whether surveillance infrastructure is intentionally built or expanded in response to Covid-19 or not, it’s also clear that our digital footprints are increasing rapidly as more and more activities move to being online-only. With that in mind, digital security, protection and resilience becomes more important, particularly for those already at risk from those in power. 

What civil society is doing about it:

Scrutiny of new private sector partnerships and government spending

At The Engine Room, a question our work often hopes to address is: who benefits from this project or idea? In many of the cases we’re seeing related to Covid-19 and new partnerships, the benefactors are the private sector, who, it seems, are using the reality wrought by Covid-19 to enter new markets and establish new partnerships without the usual scrutiny measures. 

Some companies seem to be throwing technology at these largely social problems without any critical thought. For example, a company purporting to offer employers the capability of monitoring human body temperature, combined with deep learning for no apparent reason. In cases where public money is being spent on new or emerging technologies, we need accountability on how these technologies are being selected, and–as ever–transparent processes to be sure that it’s not nepotism, or a misguided sense of tech solutionism, that is playing an driving role. 

Alongside these concerns, a key question to ask is: does this actually do what it says it will? One helpful framing for answering this comes from this slide deck by Arvind Narayanan on ‘how to recognise AI snake oil’, with these three helpful categories: genuine technological progress; far from perfect, but improving; fundamentally dubious. 

What civil society is doing about it:

Now is the time for dreaming big

A lot has happened in the past few months–including the introduction of many new policies and actions that would previously have been categorised as ‘impossible’. Rent strikes and suspensions, eviction suspensions, limited uses of cars, expansions of bike infrastructure, limits on air travel, new rent controls, and much more as catalogued here.

Our new reality means that there is more support for people-and community-focused policies, as our imaginations open to the possibility of a new system that lays strong, resilient foundations. Civil society–what do we want to do with this? Now is the time for dreaming big, and focusing not on what seems realistic given the constraints we thought we faced, but what is necessary–for climate justice, for social justice, to ensure better qualities of life for all, not just the most privileged.

We have an opportunity for a better future here–but we also face the risk of a future dominated by the vision of private sector tech companies, or authoritarian governments using this crisis as an excuse to pursue their own goals. While we’re holding power to account and pushing back against threats, we can’t forget to think about what future we all want, too. 

As Arundhati Roy writes: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.” 

Image credit: Steve Johnson on Unsplash