Seizing the moment: why Covid provides a chance for lasting change

Kajal Odedra

Executive Director, UK

Despite its overwhelmingly disastrous impact on our lives, Covid has galvanised campaigning, activism and civic participation. This creates an opportunity for us to reimagine and reshape society for the better. Civil society must act swiftly if it is to be a successful agent of that change.

It’s 7 June 2020. I’m at a protest in Central London. I have a piece of cardboard with a slogan I scrawled on with the nearest Sharpie before I rushed out of my flat that morning. We get to the protest meeting point and join a crowd of hundreds, maybe thousands, marching to the US Embassy chanting and singing, and I’m overwhelmed with the power of people coming together for a cause. It’s a beautiful thing and never fails to restore my faith in humanity.

This is all a fairly standard scene, except for a few strange details. For one, most of the protesters, including me, are wearing masks, covering our noses and mouths as though we’re in disguise. Some are flimsy blue medical masks bought in the corner shop. Others are wearing something more stylish: masks decorated with flower print, heavy duty masks, black masks with slogans. And some have scarves wrapped around their faces. When we chant it’s like we are throwing our voices, the words pumping out but the source unclear. Another thing: we aren’t crammed together. I’m five foot two, but I’m not being squeezed and pushed like at the other demonstrations I’ve been to. Far from the usual intensity of standing in a busy crowd, we are actively trying our best not to make contact with one another. A group of smiling protestors walks past with a bottle of hand sanitiser, squeezing liberally into the hands that stretch out before it. Someone else walks around handing out face masks to anyone who doesn’t have one. I get handed a leaflet with advice about being out of my house in a crowd, and what to do if a police officer questions me.

“I thought about how the 2010s had changed the way power works in the world. This was the decade that transformed activism, with the internet turning up the volume on protest and making it easier and faster than ever before to make change happen. It was the decade of people power.”

It is June 2020 and activism has been turned on its head. The Covid pandemic swept the entire globe into panic and changed life as we all knew it. Nothing has been untouched by the virus, including campaigning.

Only months before, in the otherworldliness of 2019, I’d been asked to speak at a decade wrap-up event and set out what I thought the next 10 years would bring. I thought about how the 2010s had changed the way power works in the world. This was the decade that transformed activism, with the internet turning up the volume on protest and making it easier and faster than ever before to make change happen. It was the decade of people power.

The rise of online campaigning removed traditional barriers to getting active; no longer was being ‘political’ the preserve of the expert, well-connected, or rich. Politics was finally becoming accessible. Crucially, this new kind of campaigning levelled out the playing field for those who historically had their voices silenced – young people, people of colour and women.

When thinking ahead to the next decade, I predicted that the energy galvanized within the climate movement would spark more community campaigning. The impact of local areas calling for a climate emergency to be declared, and then going on to succeed, would lead to more mobilising on the ground, and more meetings led by community activists. I hoped that we would see a resurgence in the use of town halls and libraries as community hubs.

And as I travelled the country to speak about my book, Do Something: Activism for Everyone, I saw the fruits of this energy. I met young school strikers in Cumbria who, at the ages of 11, 12 and 13, had gone to protests instead of school every Friday to take a stand for the climate. They were now campaigning for their school to stop using disposable plastic. I met an older man in Sheffield who was now retired and a self-proclaimed radical feminist, determined to bring his sons on the same journey. There was real, palpable energy across the country for people to come together and collaborate on creating change.

The world we are in now couldn’t feel more alien to that prediction. Activism is no longer about meetings in town halls or mobilising in school corridors, constrained as it is by face masks and social distancing. One of the reasons I love campaigning so much is the sense of community it provides you: the idea that you are not alone, but rather part of a wider network of people who have the same values and want to fight shoulder to shoulder. With one and two metre social distancing rules, is that even possible?

Perhaps not. Yet, when the news of the pandemic broke and the country went into lockdown, it didn’t stop activism in its tracks. It accelerated it.

We thought the news was fast paced before; with this pandemic, it went on steroids. Hour by hour, things were changing, with decisions about our lives being made so fast it was hard to keep up. Our lives were not our own. The very act of leaving our homes was now being legislated on. It felt like we were in the middle of a cyclone, being whipped around by Covid, the Government and our employers.

Inevitably, when things happen fast and out of our control, people get missed. The more vulnerable in society were being forgotten as the Government created measures to protect us. Those working in low paid jobs that we rely on every day – the bus drivers, taxi drivers, cleaners, NHS workers – were all more likely to catch the virus. Older people, those with disabilities, people of colour, were all more likely to die. Covid put a magnifying glass on the nation, showing the cracks in society to be deep crevices.

War-time analogies abounded, with combative language like ‘battle’ and ‘frontline’ being used in relation to the virus, citizens asked to ‘do their bit’ for the country, and families prepping to ration food, stocking up with canned and dry goods. But perhaps the last decade of building up agency and people power has meant that, while in war time we may have happily taken orders without question, now we were equipped to challenge those giving out commands.

Because while the virus itself is invisible, and seemingly invincible, campaigners quickly realised the role they needed to play in holding the Government and corporations – those responding to the virus – to account. And so, rather than rendering society powerless, the pandemic pushed us all into action.

“The public realised that things could be different: that we didn’t have to accept the status quo any longer.”

As soon as the country went into lockdown, the number of petitions started on multiplied by seven. Globally, we were seeing 25 million signatures a week registered on the platform for causes related to Covid. One of the first significant campaigns we won was for NHS staff to get free parking during this period. Last year, private firms made £272 million from parking at hospital sites and NHS staff were forced to pay £86 million while propping up the nation’s health service.[1] The Covid crisis catalysed a long-established campaign for change when a doctor, Anthony Gallagher, started a petition calling on the Government to scrap charges for staff. The petition grew to over 400,000 in two days, and politicians of all parties added their voices to the cause. Shortly after, the Government announced that all NHS staff would be able to park for free for the duration of the crisis.

We were seeing so many successful campaigns like this, with the pandemic providing the spark for change in so many areas that had previously been resistant to reform. The public realised that things could be different: that we didn’t have to accept the status quo any longer.

And then, at the height of pandemic on 25 May, Minneapolis police officers arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man, after a convenience store employee called 911 and told the police that Floyd had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit bill. He was handcuffed and held face down on the street. Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly eight minutes while two other officers further restrained him. A fourth officer prevented onlookers from intervening. 17 minutes after the first squad car arrived at the scene, Floyd was unconscious and pinned beneath three police officers, showing no signs of life.

The pain of George Floyd’s death has ripped open wounds all over the world for people who have been calling for racial justice for decades. For weeks to follow, despite Covid and the continued imposition of social distancing rules, protests were organised around the world. These protests were assembled across the UK, with hundreds of thousands showing up. That’s where I was on 7 June: demanding justice for George Floyd. And for Breonna Taylor. And for Sheku Bayoh. For every Black man or woman who had their life stolen by police brutality and whose families saw no justice.

Many of the protests taking place around the world were being organised by Black youths taking charge when they saw nothing concrete happen in the wake of Floyd’s death – youths like Shayla Avery, a 16-year-old from California, who texted her friend days after the killing: “We should do something”.

“If you’re determined and you’re really about what you say, then all you need is a strong voice,” she told the Guardian, after thousands turned up to the first protest she had ever organised.[2] For these young people, this killing wasn’t just an injustice, it was personal. The same article also featured 18-year-old Omer Reshid, who organised a protest in Towson, near Baltimore: “Ever since the video [of George Floyd’s killing], a lot of us, especially African Americans, have been feeling very angry and frustrated, but also scared. I know for me as a Black man it’s only a matter of time until I face racial discrimination that’s going to lead me to put myself in a situation that has my life on the line and that’s really scary to me.”

Social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok became places to educate and activate people around anti-racism through petitions, protests, articles, book recommendations, and guidance on how to be good allies. The #BlackLivesMatter hashtag surpassed an astonishing 10 billion views on TikTok. The protests sparked a move to call for statues that represented and celebrated Britain’s colonial past, and its links to slavery, to be torn down. The statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled during a Bristol protest and pushed into the docks by protesters, causing headlines around the world.

And it wasn’t just young Black people protesting. At the demonstration I was at, there were more white people than I’d ever seen at an event about racial justice. Historically, these issues have been sidelined, primarily engaging those affected with only a handful of allies present. But this moment has frankly woken a lot of people up. Why? I kept asking myself as I marched. Why now, when these brutal killings happen too often but are almost always brushed over, ignored?

The answer must lie with the pandemic: with the way in which Covid has fundamentally changed the landscape of activism and change. No longer distracted by daily life, unable to leave our homes for work or to socialise, we are more focused than ever on what is happening around us. The reality of a brutal killing can’t be obscured by the mundanity of life anymore.

And the pandemic has highlighted how unjust life is for people of colour, with proportionately more Black and Asian people unemployed and dying from the virus than white. This perfect storm – of the public paying more attention, of inequality and the pent-up rage of years of systemic racism – has created a moment of intense pressure. Corporations are being shamed for their lack of Black leadership and making dramatic commitments to do better; streets are being renamed to stop glorifying racism; and government inquiries are being launched into systemic racism. The doors that we have been banging on for years are being bust wide open.

“We have a window of opportunity to push for the changes we want to keep and the new ideas we want considered. As civil society, we need to act with urgency, as though our house is on fire.”

Covid has caused endless harm to our lives: mental health has suffered, domestic violence services have reported an increase in calls, and we have lost loved ones too soon.[3] But the pandemic has also created an opportunity to reset and reimagine our societies.

At the beginning of the outbreak, writer and activist Arundhati Roy wrote in the Financial Times: “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.”[4]

What does that look like? Digitally engaged and educated politicians and parliaments. No more diversity trainings, but organisations putting their money where their mouth is with diversity, equity and inclusion at the top of the agenda. The more we allow ‘ordinary people’ at the decision makers’ table, the better. We all benefit from a society that is shaped by many voices with different experiences and ideas. We cannot miss this opportunity. The public are pushing down the doors to the portal; it’s the institutions, governments, charities, and media that must now give them permission to come through.

This is a unique moment in history, but humans forget easily. Once normality kicks in we will lose this chance to make lasting change. We have a window of opportunity to push for the changes we want to keep and the new ideas we want considered. As civil society, we need to act with urgency, as though our house is on fire. This portal is a gift to create a society that really works for us all, and to break away from the status quo. If this year has taught me anything, it is that extraordinary things happen in adversity.

[1] M Mathers, “Coronavirus: More than 300,000 people sign petition to scrap car parking charges for NHS workers”, The Independent, 25 March 2020

[2] M Bryant, “‘It was time to take charge’: the Black youth leading the George Floyd protests”, The Guardian, 15 June 2020

[3] See, for example, A Kousoulis et al., The COVID-19 pandemic, financial inequality and mental health, Mental Health Foundation, May 2020, and M Townsend, “Revealed: surge in domestic violence during Covid-19 crisis”, The Observer, 12 April 2020

[4] A Roy, “The pandemic is a portal”, Financial Times, 3 April 2020