The word “unprecedented” is used frequently when discussing COVID-19. What is truly unprecedented, however, are the ways in which community organizers around the world have created innovative platforms in which compassion, care, and social justice are guiding principles. Community organizers know how to pivot. We have to, given the political contexts and precarious arenas in which we work and serve predominantly at-risk populations. When the pandemic beckoned us from our sleepy complacency earlier this year, community organizers began to slowly realize that something was happening. Something big.
But what actions can be done when the dangers of organizing are exacerbated by a global pandemic? Malcolm Gladwell, a writer and columnist for the New York Times, argued in 2010 that “the revolution will not be tweeted.” He questioned the ability of online activism to create lasting change compared to traditional forms of activism, stating that online activism offers comparatively lower risk while still offering the ability to maintain one’s social capital. Much has changed in the ten years since Gladwell offered this critique: the online world has become inextricably intertwined with the physical, and the power to effect change has similarly expanded across both domains. It has been demonstrated that one’s social capital online can alter employment prospects, educational aspirations, and one’s financial reality if the right – or wrong – words are said on a social media platform. To disregard the online world is to willingly forfeit a valuable tool, which the oppressive systems are undoubtedly utilizing to achieve their own ends. In the cases we present, we refer to community organizing as individuals embarking upon various activities of support and nurturing at the climax of the pandemic, whereas we qualify activism as more of a politically-centred organized form of social justice. The blend of community organizing and activist spaces comprise what we affectionately refer to as “COVID activism.”
Online groups have become an epicenter of community care and social connectedness in an unlikely time of social distance. “Caremongering” Facebook groups have populated in numerous cities across Canada, providing access to resources for individuals especially at risk during the pandemic and offering a virtual space to navigate the challenges of COVID-19 as a community. The Kitchener-Waterloo chapter has been a useful connection to others in the city, where members are able to check-in with one another and volunteer for trips to the grocers or pharmacy. People who sew offered to make masks, and ended up organizing to produce hundreds of masks for local hospital workers.
People are inherently social and will evidently congregate and seek out community as a way to feel connection. We have seen smaller groups establish with individuals who need support in addiction recovery, or those offering their specific skills as bakers, computer specialists, and teachers to folks at home seeking expert advice. Artistic expression can be seen through my four walls, where members submit photos and communicate their experiences of the pandemic creatively. Interestingly, this local foodie group pivoted from its usual focus to provide practical advice on sourcing essential sanitization products at nearby stores or navigating online delivery systems. Later, it became a source of fact-sharing, dispelling propaganda through research, and speaking out against price gouging in stores.
Online discussions surrounding a universal basic income (UBI) have also been prevalent following the release of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which currently provides eligible Canadians with financial relief during the pandemic. The caremongering groups have also compelled folks to organize against evictions and poor shelter conditions during the pandemic. The encouragement of “getting through this together” has felt consistently authentic and meaningful for local residents who typically would not identify themselves as community organizers or activists.
Social media has become a central tool in the organization of community efforts and has similarly proven useful in the realm of social activism. In the era of coronavirus, large gatherings pose a public health risk that not all people are able to make. Black Americans, for example, are experiencing a death toll 2.4 times greater than White Americans(Canada, notably, does not collect race-based COVID-19 data). Immunocompromised individuals are also at an increased risk for fatality, as are precariously housed individuals. Social issues persist, pandemic or not; inequity is insidiously woven into the fabric of our daily realities, and is further amplified during a global health crisis. This is evident in our numerous Indigenous communities across Canada, many of whom are not able to follow sanitation and handwashing guidelines offered by the Government of Canada due to their lack of access to potable water. The government has gone so far as to officially recommend using bottled water for handwashing if a community is on a water advisory, but remains silent on why, of the $1.1 billion allocated to coronavirus relief, no funds had been invested in clean water for these communities years prior. Systemic racism is an ongoing public health crisis that threatens the lives of countless racialized people across the country, and is a driving force of social determinants of health such as employment, housing, and education.
As such, social media has become a method to further propel social justice initiatives and demonstrations against systemic injustices. Protestors can share crucial information, offer emotional and practical support, and broadcast speedy updates on what is happening on-the-ground as events unfold. During the Black Lives Matter protests beginning across the United States and beyond in May 2020, updates were tweeted on what the armband colour plain-cloth NYPD officers were wearing on a given day to more easily identify them. There circulated advice on chemical attack safety, information guides confirming one’s civic right to protest, and how to disrupt street surveillance cameras with laser pens. Information was shared by Egyptologist Sarah Parcak via Twitter on how to pull down monuments, which likely would not have circulated if not for the far-reach and hashtag abilities of the social media platform. That night, demonstrators pulled down a confederate statue at Linn Park in Birmingham, Alabama, and the city’s mayor subsequently removed the park’s remaining confederate monument the following day.
But as technology advances, so too are the capabilities of those upholding unethical systems. Where facial recognition technology has been developed to identify protestors, an unofficial dress code has been adopted and circulated online in response: black clothing, face masks, protective eyewear, and ensuring identifiable tattoos or markings are obscured. Law enforcement has similarly attempted to use online crowdsourcing platforms of its own to solicit information on the identities of demonstrators. The Dallas Police Department, for example, developed and released a phone application, iWatch, which encouraged people to submit videos of “illegal activity” happening in the city as the result of protesting. In response, the app was flooded with irrelevant videos of Korean pop artists and was temporarily shut down. Negative reviews also populated on the app store in order to deter others from downloading the application.
Safety and Security
Modern-day activists must stay responsive to the ways that being perpetually plugged in to the online world can harm their ability to demonstrate effectively in-person. Law enforcement utilizes strategies such as plain-cloth officers, drones, and video surveillance, but have also stepped up their tactics to include digital surveillance. Cellphone data and information can now be accessed to determine the identity of protestors simply by having a cellphone located on your person while present at a demonstration. Concerns over privacy in a digital world have brought with it specific strategies to maintain civil liberties and security amidst civil unrest. Advice online has circulated on how to best combat this, such as turning off location-tracking and data-sharing capabilities on your phone, leaving your phone on in a remote location, or removing facial recognition and fingerprint identification capabilities so it cannot be unlocked by force. This information was especially relevant in March of 2019, when protests in Hong Kong first began. Activists were responding to the proposed extradition bill, which would allow citizens suspected of criminal activity to, in some cases, be extradited from semiautonomous Hong Kong to mainland China. Over the months that followed, it became evident that maintaining safety and security, both in the streets and online, was crucial in maintaining the wellbeing of participating individuals. WhatsApp, an online messaging application owned by Facebook, was a primary tool for which protestors could share resources and plan for upcoming demonstrations. Alternative forms of online communication through messaging platforms gained momentum as it became evident that WhatsApp was not secure enough with user data.
In addition to the typical preparations for a demonstration, such as establishing a route or appointing speakers, medics, crowd marshals, and other roles, organizing in a pandemic means adhering to further safety protocols. Specific information for protesting during a pandemic has circulated amongst attendants, encouraging others to follow COVID-19 health guidelines such as monitoring symptoms, wearing a mask, social distancing for fourteen days following, and getting tested if one suspects they exhibit symptoms. Notably, one does not need to disclose their participation in a demonstration when receiving the COVID-19 test.
Online activism has evolved to go far beyond what Gladwell and others have referred to as “slacktivism.” It is debated that knowledge-sharing and increased awareness online can in-and-of-itself challenge and dismantle oppressive systems. However, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the benefits of online activism as an accessible and multi-faceted tool for social movements. For social workers in often frontline positions, traditional forms of activism may pose harm to the clients you serve daily, and this needs to be weighed into your decision on how to best amplify support. It is crucial that whichever actions are taken are done so critically and with the drive to enact systemic change and community care. In light of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, Dorlee Michaeli (of Socialwork.Career) has compiled a comprehensive list of anti-racism resources for social workers and therapists.
We believe that social work has been given an important opportunity to enhance the ways in which we value and honour micro and macro practice, and the synergy of both is what informs holistic models of healing and social justice work. As evidenced by the organizing that has taken place and continues to exist during the pandemic, paying lip service to the importance of macro practices in social work is simply insufficient. As stakeholders in the social work profession, we need to remain vigilant on how we are reproducing oppression and injustice in our own practice, work, partnerships, and organizations, and actively work to dismantle them.
Rachel Yavnai and Ginette Lafrenière
Rachel Yavnai is a Research and Community Project Coordinator at MCCHR and SIRG.
Ginette Lafrenière is an Associate Professor at the Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, and the Director of the MCCHR and SIRG.