In a pandemic, be a positive disruptor and not an ambulance chaser


This article is a part of OGR's Imagining our Post-Pandemic Futures series on the human rights practice needed for creating a better world during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.


Recently, Schools of Equality, a non-profit in India that one of the co-authors founded,  approached a donor about renewing financial support. The donor suggested that they include a COVID-19 angle. Schools of Equality aims to prevent identity-based discrimination, including gender-based violence, by conducting activity-based programs in schools to shift attitudes that perpetuate discrimination, and since the pandemic, gender-based violence has increased in India. The donor’s suggestion led to internal conversations about how, if at all, to reframe their work. The non-profit decided that while they should adapt their programming to meet the needs of the current situation, their strategy to address the increased violence will continue to be determined in consultation with key stakeholders, staying connected to their long-term vision.

This situation is not unique. Human rights advocates globally have been scrambling to understand the implications of COVID-19 for their work. The pandemic has resulted in over 300,000 deaths to date, more than 4 million infected in 185 countries, and large parts of the world facing some type of movement restriction. However, in any moment of crisis, including this one, it is crucial that social justice advocates focus on ethical and transformative advocacy, not only reactive short-term change. Below, we offer some suggestions to guide discussions of organizational goals, advocacy strategies, team morale, and individual reflection.

Not everyone has to work on COVID-19

COVID-19 has exposed and exacerbated long-standing structural inequalities, and led to states perpetrating new human rights abuses. In parts of the United States, there are chronic shortages of hospital beds. Migrant workers in the Middle East living in overcrowded spaces have seen the highest infection rates in the region. Countries experiencing conflict are unprepared to respond to the pandemic. Some governments responding to the crisis have enacted draconian emergency laws, left thousands of people more vulnerable, or brutally clamped down under the guise of enforcing lockdowns.

The pandemic has not erased other complex, multi-year struggles.

However, the pandemic has not erased other complex, multi-year struggles. There is still a vital need for advocates to be working on under-covered, protracted issues. After the pandemic broke, there have been crackdowns on protestors in Guinea who are resisting unjust elections, and at least 25 people were killed due to fighting between armed groups in the Central African Republic, where one of the co-authors of this post works to investigate mass atrocities and support national NGOs. Kashmir, where another of the co-authors works to promote human rights and peace, experienced a lockdown for several months preceding COVID-19, following the revocation of its constitutional autonomy by India in August 2019.

We must be strategic and awake to the new challenges and opportunities of COVID-19. But there is a danger if everyone pivots to work on the same issue. We must also be cognizant that addressing most human rights violations take years, often decades of sustained, grueling work. Five years from now, we should not wake up to a reality where non-COVID-19 human rights violations have not been addressed, and other emerging or future issues have not been anticipated.

Focus on root causes, not just symptoms

In times of crisis, there is a tendency to jump into the role of frontline responder, and sometimes even become an ambulance chaser. Actions of some funders and others in the larger system can also incentivize the role of a frontline responder. However, social justice is a broad ecosystem and, regardless of whether or not there is a crisis, works best when human rights advocates play different roles within the field and work alongside practitioners from other fields.

While there is a need for some to manufacture and deliver masks and other protective gear, others must also address why certain communities have been disproportionately impacted. While some must deliver rations to migrant workers, others need to work towards legal and policy changes that ensure greater protection of the informal sector. While some people should set up safe houses and establish hotlines to address the rising domestic violence and child sexual abuse, others should focus on dismantling the power structures that allow and perpetuate these violations. We need to meet urgent needs, but we also need to examine and shift the root causes of human rights violations, many of which are being exacerbated by the current situation.

We need to meet urgent needs, but we also need to examine and shift the root causes of human rights violations.

Additionally, we should ensure our efforts are tailored to the context, and that we do not apply programming that is effective in New York to Nairobi. Social distancing may not work in the same way in areas where populations live in crowded areas. Lockdowns without government financial support might be ineffective, even harmful, in poor communities that do not have the money to pay next month’s rent. Our efforts must be designed to address the complex, intersectional needs of diverse populations around the world.

Re-imagine how the field currently operates

The human rights field is constantly responding to crises. While there is impetus to respond effectively to the human rights concerns resulting from COVID-19, it is vital to ensure we retain our core values.  The need to act with urgency is not an excuse to forget values that underlie ethical and transformative human rights advocacy: centering priorities of affected individuals and forming equal partnerships.

The crisis should be viewed as an opportunity to re-imagine how the field operates. As opportunities to leverage and increase advocacy during the crisis emerge, it is crucial that decisions to act be taken with affected communities and individuals, who understand their own needs best and are frequently positive disruptors in their own communities. There is an opportunity here to build a human rights field that prioritizes partnerships, works in solidarity with communities, and is open to innovation. And this is not limited to the current moment. The need for values-based advocacy predates and should outlast COVID-19.

Prioritize relationships

Sustaining strong teams when responding to constantly evolving situations and while we are all physically distant is challenging but necessary. Not everyone is being affected by COVID-19 in the same way, and prior experiences, home environment, and individual circumstances will determine the bandwidth that each person has.

There is an opportunity here to build a human rights field that prioritizes partnerships, works in solidarity with communities, and is open to innovation.

Individuals that usually show up in solidarity with you may also be affected. It is therefore important to check in with your colleagues, celebrate small wins, and acknowledge each other’s work. This might seem counterintuitive to the perennial “crisis” feeling that many may be going through, but it is vital for team morale. Being a kind and thoughtful colleague, particularly during times of intense stress and uncertainty, will allow for more efficient, sustainable, and joyful movements.

Make time to pause and reflect

Time for pause and reflection is as vital as time for action. In fact, it allows for more creative and effective action. Human rights advocates are always responding to  pressing challenges, and may need to fundamentally shift how we define productivity.

It has been during moments of pause or “less” work in our own lives that we have had the space to think beyond imperfect patterns and path dependencies, and to imagine new possibilities. For example, Schools of Equality emerged from intentionally taking time to reflect on the limitations of litigation and purely legal response mechanisms, thinking about solutions that tackle the root causes that underlie identity-based discrimination.

A crucial barrier to innovation in the human rights field is its narrow definitions of productivity and effective change, which often focuses on short-term outputs rather than incremental, long-term change. For the human rights field to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic stronger, advocates should look to redefine and transform the field, not just react to emergencies.