Article originally published in German on WZB on 30 April 2020 – accessible here
Authors: Edgar Grande and Swen Hutter
Disasters and crises are not only a challenge for the state. Such emergency situations are also characterised by the spontaneous willingness to help and the solidarity of the citizens. The great commitment of civil society in Germany was particularly impressive, most recently in the so-called refugee crisis in autumn 2015, which led to a sharp increase in civic involvement and is rightly considered a “great moment for civil society” (PDF). In the Corona crisis, too, people are once again involved in many different ways, and numerous new aid initiatives and solidarity campaigns have been launched. The commitment ranges from supporting everyday activities such as shopping and transportation, to dealing with loneliness and fear, to coping with social emergencies and many other needs that require new solutions.
Can we therefore expect that the Corona crisis will also lead to a surge of activism in civil society and to a sustainable strengthening of social cohesion? We should not be deceived by first impressions. A closer look at the current situation in Germany and at available studies on the effects of natural disasters on the social capital of a society gives rise to doubts.
First of all, the Corona crisis has brought not only the economy to a standstill, but also large sections of civil society. This can be seen in the boards as an example. Despite rising demand, almost half of the food banks across Germany are currently closed. At the same time, the association’s leadership fears that many volunteers (90 percent belong to the risk group due to their age) will not resume their activities even after the pandemic. The restrictions on public life introduced to combat the corona pandemic have therefore drastically demonstrated that access to public space and the possibility of joint action on the ground are indispensable for civic involvement. The Corona crisis has not only activated citizens, it has also considerably restricted the opportunities for civic engagement – and it is to be feared that some of these restrictions will continue for some time to come.
In its statement of 13 April 2020, the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina concludes: “The current measures to slow down the spread of infection … are leading to a serious weakening of civil society. …] The activities of the associations – from sports and cultural clubs to friends’ and supporters’ associations to the grassroots organisations of political and church life – have largely been suspended. Large areas of organised civil society currently exist only in digitally linked networks in a shrunken form”. But such digital offers and activities are obviously only makeshift solutions, and it is very questionable whether they can be a sufficient substitute for joint activities over a longer period of time. Against this background, the Leopoldina proposes to gradually reopen the public space for civil society involvement – “as soon as possible”.