Karl von Holdt and Tasneem Essop write on working with communities and movements to fight the pandemic in an article published in the Business Day. Read the full article Communities, not government, can and are fighting Covid-19.

A popular movement has arisen with extraordinary rapidity in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. With the announcement of a state of disaster, activists in communities across the country mobilised to protect their communities.

For example, the Amadiba Crisis Committee, established to fight against the destruction of land by mining on the Wild Coast, formed teams to move from household to household distributing sanitiser and talking about the necessity for physical-distancing.

In Khayelitsha, Cape Town, the Social Justice Coalition formed a community action network (CAN) and mobilised to demand water tanks from the city — which actually arrived within a week. The CAN, too, organised teams to inform community members about how to respond to the pandemic. The broader CAN movement in Cape Town has expanded to play a similar role.

In Ekurhuleni, the General Industries Workers Union of SA and the Casual Workers Advice Office printed 700,000 pamphlets about the coronavirus, distributing these at taxi ranks and in communities, and also made their own sanitiser for distribution. The street patrollers in the Yeoville Community Policing Forum marshalled at the long queues at local supermarkets, encouraging physical-distancing and resolving conflicts.

These few examples show faster, more agile and more effective responses than most state activities.Meanwhile, at the national level, a diverse network of activists came together with the aim of co-ordinating a popular response to the state of disaster and the pandemic.

They were motivated by three overriding concerns: to strengthen community responses; ensure government responses did not exacerbate inequality and exclusion; and propose measures that would not only counter the immediate social and economic crisis, but also lay the foundations for a different kind of future.

Within a week they had established a broad coalition, which, by now, is supported by 250 movements, NGOs, trade unions, informal sector workers, feminist groups, faith-based organisations, research centres and public health networks — the biggest coalition SA has seen since the 1983 formation of the United Democratic Front.

The coalition has about 20 working groups, undertaking work ranging from building community organisation to distributing food parcels, and from policy work to repression monitoring and gender organising.

These and other initiatives that are not part of the C19 People’s Coalition reveal a vibrant and resourceful set of movements and networks with deep roots in communities and workplaces. Yet despite efforts, and notwithstanding some ad hoc local collaborations, there has been no systematic engagement from a government which, it is increasingly clear, is too distant and disorganised to directly access communities and ameliorate desperation and social distress.

Its food parcel efforts are hindered by bureaucratic processes to limit beneficiaries to the “deserving poor”, and failed promises have provoked tensions and food riots in some areas.

Indeed, the state’s most visible presence in communities is in the form of the police, municipal law enforcement, and the army, which has been set the often unattainable task of enforcing the lockdown in communities where compliance is impossible. This has led to many instances of brutal, illegal and unjustifiable force being used against people across the country.

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