The coronavirus pandemic has mobilized Ukrainian civil society, which has redirected its focus and resources to deal with the new crisis.
Published December 07, 2020
Carnegie Civic Research Network
After Ukraine registered its first confirmed case of the coronavirus in early March 2020, the country’s government introduced quarantine measures; banned mass gatherings; restricted freedom of movement; closed educational institutions and sports, cultural, and entertainment venues; and limited the provision of healthcare, social, and administrative services. These measures were gradually lifted starting in May 2020. The government did not introduce a state of emergency, but many critical voices, including from civil society, questioned the constitutionality of the restrictions.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected in April 2019 in a landslide victory, has continued to lose popularity. Public trust in him fell from 62 percent in December 2019 to 44 percent in July 2020, according to surveys by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, a nongovernmental organization.1 This trend is only partly related to the government’s crisis response, however, and stems more from a persistent pattern of stalled reforms and corruption.
Responding to the Crisis
The coronavirus pandemic has mobilized Ukrainian civil society, which has redirected its focus and resources to deal with the new crisis. To a large extent, civil society organizations (CSOs) have replicated the experience of volunteerism, crowdsourcing, and cooperation with business that they gained during the 2013 Euromaidan antigovernment protests and the 2014–2015 security crisis, in which civil society self-organized to protect civic space, democracy, and statehood and filled gaps left by the state.2 Much of this activism has been local, fluid, and flexible.3
In addition, surveys suggest that most established CSOs have changed their activities during the pandemic to become the backbone of civil society’s response to the emergency.4 The coronavirus crisis has modified the ways in which CSOs operate; most importantly, many civic groups have switched to an emergency mode and quickly reoriented their activities to respond to emerging needs in the healthcare sector. Many CSOs have joined efforts with businesses and local authorities to fight the virus. Several new civic initiatives have been established to respond to new needs.
In a survey of seventy-five representatives of CSOs conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Foundation in April 2020, half of the respondents agreed that the pandemic had multiplied social capital, including people-to-people connections, solidarity, and mutual trust, and helped develop skills and technologies of self-organization.5 The survey shows that civil society has recognized new opportunities for fostering community development through the use of digital technologies, helping vulnerable groups, offering counseling, and combating fake news.
During the 2014–2015 security crisis, Ukrainian civil society substituted itself for the state by providing the security and defense sectors with essential supplies of military equipment.6 In much the same way, in 2020, civil society has provided hospitals with critical equipment, such as ventilators, oxygen, and personal protective equipment, as well as various services for healthcare staff, like transportation and free meals.7 Civil society has also given a voice to medical workers who blew the whistle about the low preparedness of their healthcare institutions and ineffective public spending on the coronavirus response.
This strategy of helping Ukraine’s weak healthcare system to deal with the pandemic was crucial to boost the country’s resilience during the first weeks and months of the crisis. A crucial issue is whether civil society actors can apply the social capital they have built up during the emergency response to influence Ukraine’s broader reform process. There, the question is whether CSOs can engage in implementing and monitoring ongoing healthcare reforms and strengthen, rather than replace, the state.
Similarly, civil society efforts have emerged or been reinvigorated to help the most vulnerable, such as the elderly, the homeless, people with disabilities, minority groups, and conflict-affected populations, by providing them with essential goods and services during the pandemic. Ukraine’s coronavirus crisis has also revealed the weakness of the country’s social protection system, including social services. It remains to be seen whether service providers that work with vulnerable groups can seize the moment to advocate more radical change of the social protection system.
An important dimension of civil society activity has consisted of raising awareness about the pandemic and disputing disinformation. Providing reliable information on the pandemic has become the main activity of many Ukrainian CSOs.8 This trend puts Ukraine in line with many other countries around the globe in which civil society has played a key role in providing timely and reliable information about the virus and response measures.
At the same time, many civil society watchdogs have continued their activities by closely monitoring how the state has responded to the crisis and advocating changes when the watchdogs have deemed a state response to be disproportionate or not based on a law. CSOs have also closely tracked the ways in which the government has redirected public spending to emergent needs.9 Despite restrictions on the freedom of movement, citizens have organized protests to protect their interests or respond to perceived injustices in coronavirus-related assistance measures.
Filling Gaps Left by the Government
Ukrainian civil society has mobilized to respond to the coronavirus crisis to compensate for the government’s failure to prepare for a health emergency and a subsequent socioeconomic crisis. CSOs have provided services and supplies for the healthcare system and vulnerable groups, filling a gap left by the government across Ukraine. In doing so, many civil society actors have cooperated closely with businesses and coordinated their activities with authorities. National, regional, and local authorities have recognized the power of civil society by working with it to channel private and corporate resources to plug the gaps.
From within the president’s office, Ukraine’s Anticrisis Headquarters selected Odesa charity Monsters Corporation, which had helped healthcare institutions and vulnerable people before the pandemic, to distribute corporate donations to hospitals and clinics. In less than a month, the charity had accumulated 349 million hryvnia ($12.3 million), of which 302 million hryvnia ($10.6 million) was spent on medical equipment, protective gear, and medicines.10 In cooperation with local businesses and authorities, the charity continued to raise funds to supply healthcare institutions in the Odesa region.11
Many existing CSOs seized the moment and redirected their efforts to provide coronavirus-related support by establishing broad coalitions, including with businesses. In the city of Poltava, four CSOs, among them a charity and a local business association, established the Poltava Volunteer Group to support local hospitals, healthcare workers, the elderly, and people with disabilities who live alone.12 The group mobilized volunteers and crowdfunded to pursue their goals.13
In Kyiv, volunteers who had known each other since 2013–2014 united into the Kyiv Volunteer Headquarters.14 The group was initiated by a businessman and an adviser to the city’s mayor.15 The volunteers collaborated closely with local authorities and businesses and crowdsourced to provide hospital supplies, protective equipment, transportation, food, and other services for healthcare workers and those in need.
CSOs in Lviv joined forces with local businesses and authorities to create the platform STOP COVID-19, which collected data and supplied local hospitals with the most urgent protective clothing and equipment.16 Local volunteer initiatives built broad networks with healthcare institutions, based on some insider knowledge of the healthcare system. This may serve as a building block for civic actors to engage as watchdogs in Ukraine’s ongoing healthcare reform.
CSOs representing patients extended their work to support healthcare workers and institutions.17 Because of the pandemic, some groups used crowdsourcing strategies to collect contributions, making their work more recognizable in the community. By establishing contacts with businesses and healthcare institutions, CSOs also expanded their social capital networks, enabling them to advance their missions in the future.
One of the most popular volunteer initiatives at the community level across Ukraine was Give a Medic a Lift. This helped healthcare workers get to their workplaces when public transportation was suspended. Volunteers coordinated their efforts on social media.18 Taxi services provided free transportation for healthcare workers in various cities in partnership with CSOs.
Companies swiftly increased the scope of their corporate social responsibility programs to respond to new needs. As of early May 2020, Ukrainian business actors had dedicated an estimated 2 billion hryvnia ($71 million) to fighting the virus. Large and small businesses contributed, often in cooperation with civil society.19 Working with local social services, a retail network provided food packages for the elderly across Ukraine. A Kharkiv information technology (IT) cluster whose mission is to promote a favorable business environment for IT companies launched a project to gather donations and provide medical supplies for local hospitals and help the elderly in cooperation with local charities.20 Trade unions and associations also allocated resources to emergency assistance; for example, trade unions of penitentiary workers offered funds to supply prison staff with personal protective equipment.
Many CSOs and volunteers focused on supporting older people. Civic initiatives emerged online to organize food and medicine deliveries to older people living alone and others in vulnerable situations. Activists created an online platform called Solidarity, which connected volunteers and people in need.21 Many existing CSOs and civic activists used social media, mostly Facebook, to crowdsource to deliver food packages and medicines to the elderly.
Civil society also mobilized to support vulnerable and marginalized groups that had suffered from exclusion and discrimination before the pandemic and were then left behind in the state’s response to it, such as the homeless, Romani communities, people with disabilities, and vulnerable children. In Kyiv, where there are tens of thousands of homeless people, including those who became homeless when they lost their jobs or when intercity transportation was suspended, charities and volunteers coordinated their efforts to supply food, water, information, and shelter.22 In the city of Vinnytsia, a CSO partnered with local authorities to provide food and health information for people living on the street.23 Other CSOs offered food, personal protective equipment, hygiene items, and health information to Romani communities.24
When movement across the contact line between government-controlled Ukraine and separatist-held territory in the country’s east was suspended, humanitarian organizations were the only ones to help conflict-affected populations stuck at crossing points.25 These organizations provided people with food, medicines, shelter, and information and advocated on their behalf to ease movement through the areas affected by the conflict.
CSOs launched coronavirus-specific fact-checking initiatives to debunk false information and conspiracy theories about the virus and monitor the media. The group Detector Media created entertaining video content with the hashtag #сидивдома (stay at home) to raise awareness about the coronavirus, teach critical thinking, and distinguish reputable
from fake news.26 VoxCheck, a CSO initiative that fact-checked the speeches of Ukrainian politicians, identified incorrect information and provided verified briefings about the pandemic in cooperation with Facebook’s International Fact-Checking Network.27 A CSO that aims to popularize science in Ukraine launched a project called Scientific Method to promote science-based information about the coronavirus.28
Some CSOs focused on delivering timely and reliable information to vulnerable groups. Romani organizations translated information into the Romani language and spread it to Romani communities through social media.29 A CSO coalition that protects the rights of people with learning disabilities launched a project to produce distilled information about the coronavirus.30
Watching the State
Although the bulk of Ukraine’s civic activism has focused on filling gaps left by the government, many CSOs have continued to perform their function as watchdogs and advocate policy change. Human rights organizations have monitored the impact of the coronavirus and the government’s response and called for modifications. The government adopted many measures in an emergency mode without prior consultation with stakeholders such as civil society, which has contested several of the measures. CSOs have monitored how restrictions on the freedom of movement have affected the human rights of conflict-affected populations and the residents of occupied Crimea. Civic groups have also fought strategic cases in the courts and lobbied the authorities to change course. This led the government to introduce humanitarian exceptions for crossings between government-controlled and occupied parts of Ukraine and modify its overly restrictive approach.
Despite quarantine measures in detention facilities, human rights CSOs have managed to remotely monitor the situation of detainees and the preparedness of Ukraine’s prison system to deal with the pandemic. Several CSOs have continued to provide legal consultations for citizens, including on labor rights issues, which have become more acute during the coronavirus crisis. When schools were closed to prevent the spread of the virus, organizations for people with disabilities called for children with disabilities to be included in distance learning and for the education process to be adapted to their needs.31
Ukraine’s anticorruption watchdogs have extended their activities to monitor coronavirus-related policy developments and spending at the national and local levels. In Kharkiv, for example, CSOs and volunteers highlighted the ineffective use of coronavirus funds for hospitals, purchases of supplies at high prices, and increased spending on non-coronavirus-related construction projects under the city’s budget.32 Patients’ rights CSOs warned about the delayed public procurement of life-saving medicines by the Ministry of Health.33
Protests have continued during the pandemic despite a ban on mass gatherings. Nationalist groups demonstrated against government initiatives to negotiate peace in
Ukraine’s war-torn eastern Donbas region. Small businesses such as market vendors and farmers protested against strict stay-at-home orders. Such protests were peaceful and, as a rule, faced no sanctions from the authorities.
Organizational Change or Changing Civic Space?
The global pandemic and physical isolation have pushed CSOs to change their ways of operating, with many shifting to work remotely and predominantly online. In a survey of 250 CSOs conducted by the Civic Space and Ukrainian Philanthropists Forum in late March 2020, nearly 70 percent of organizations were working remotely, and 40 percent had been ready for such a change.34 Many organizations moved their events online to meet the requirements of physical distancing. In March, most CSOs did not register reduced funding, but this may change in light of the economic downturn.
Some CSOs also say that the coronavirus crisis has freed up time and space to think more strategically about their priorities and opened new niches. The Ukrainian Volunteer Service, which promotes a culture of volunteering in Ukraine, realized that volunteers often face barriers to engage with CSOs, which, in turn, often lack knowledge of how to work with volunteers.35 The service worked to help CSOs that are seeking volunteers to cooperate better with those who want to help. Some organizations say that the coronavirus restrictions have pushed them to digitize their services and their ways of working, increase transparency and accountability, find new ways to stay in touch with their beneficiaries, reach out to new donors, and deepen transnational links to share experiences.36 Yet, other groups have voiced concerns that the ban on mass gatherings has removed street protest from the CSO tool kit.37
Ukraine’s case shows that the coronavirus crisis has provided an opportunity for civil society to innovate, build social capital, gain public trust, expand partnerships with authorities and businesses, and enter new niches. The crisis has also changed the environment in which CSOs operate by pushing them to work even more online, digitize their services, and improve their communication skills. At the same time, the pandemic raises several challenges for civil society, from hasty policy decisions to potential limits on private funding for activities not related to the coronavirus.
1 Ilko Kucheriv, “Six Months of the Pandemic: What Happened to the Moods and Electoral Preferences of Ukrainians?,” Democratic Initiatives Foundation, July 24, 2020, https://dif.org.ua/article/six-months-of-the-pandemic-what-happened-to-the-moods-and-electoral-preferences-of-ukrainians; and “Підсумки-2019 й прогнози на 2020-й: громадська думка” [The conclusions of 2019 and forecast for 2020: public opinion], Democratic Initiatives Foundation, December 26, 2019, https://dif.org.ua/article/pidsumki-2019-gromadska-dumka.
2 Natalia Shapovalova, “Ukraine: Civic Volunteerism and the Legacy of Euromaidan,” in “Global Civic Activism in Flux,” ed. Richard Youngs, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2017, 47–51.
3 “Civil Society Rises Again to Fight COVID-19,” Engage Ukraine, May 18, 2020, https://engage.org.ua/civil-society-rises-again-to-fight-covid-19-2/.
4 “В Україні до протидії COVID-19 долучені майже половина ГО, — дослідження” [Nearly half of CSOs are engaged in combating COVID-19 in Ukraine], Reanimation Reform Package, May 12, 2020, https://rpr.org.ua/news/v-ukraini-do-protydii-covid-19-dolucheni-mayzhe-polovyna-ho-doslidzhennia/; Ilko Kucheriv, “Громадянське суспільство в період пандемії: як вона вплинула на громадську активність” [Civil society in times of the pandemic: how the coronavirus affects civic engagement], Democratic Initiatives Foundation, May 12, 2020, https://dif.org.ua/uploads/doc/7682477285ebab736e89f19.90272399.doc.
5 Kucheriv, “Громадянське суспільство в період пандемії.”
6 Kateryna Zarembo, “Substituting for the State: The Role of Volunteers in Defense Reform in Post-Euromaidan Ukraine,” Kyiv-Mohyla Law and Politics Journal 3, no. 3 (December 2017), 47–70, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322149777_Substituting_for_the_State_The_Role_of_Volunteers_in_Defense_Reform_in_Post-Euromaidan_Ukraine.
7 Mykhaylo Shtekel, “Чому апарати штучної вентиляції легень в одеські лікарні возять волонтери” [Why volunteers bring lung ventilators to Odesa hospitals], Radio Liberty, April 7, 2020, https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/odesa-shtuchna-ventyliacija-lehen-volontery/30538142.html; Liliya Rzheutska, “Боротьба з COVID-19 в Україні: сподівання на волонтерський рух” [Fight with COVID-19: hope for the volunteer movement], DW, April 14, 2020, https://www.dw.com/uk/боротьба-з-covid-19-в-україні-сподівання-на-волонтерський-рух/a-53115778; “CF ‘Patients of Ukraine’ Helped 218 Hospitals to Fight Against Coronavirus in Five Months of the Initiative,” Patients of Ukraine, September 8, 2020, http://patients.org.ua/en/2020/09/08/bf-patsiyenty-ukrayiny-dopomig-218-likarnyam-u-borotbi-z-koronavirusom-za-p-yat-misyatsiv-initsiatyvy/.
8 Kucheriv, “Громадянське суспільство в період пандемії.”
9 Oleksandr Humeniuk, “‘We’ve Earned Them Together.’ Anti-Coronavirus Fund Used for Needs of Various Agencies,” StateWatch, July 3, 2020, https://statewatch.org.ua/en/publications/we-ve-earned-them-together-anti-coronavirus-fund-used-for-needs-of-various-agencies/; Oleksandr Humeniuk, “Як витрачають кошти з Covid-фонду?” [How is the money from the COVID fund spent?], StateWatch, September 4, 2020, https://statewatch.org.ua/publications/yak-vytrachaiut-koshty-z-covid19-fondu/.
10 “Одеський фонд виходить із проєкту Офісу президента щодо боротьби з COVID-19” [An Odesa foundation leaves the president’s office’s project on fighting COVID-19], Ukrainska Pravda, April 17, 2020, https://www.pravda.com.ua/news/2020/04/17/7248299/.
11 “COVID-19 Подопечные фонда Корпорация Монстров” [COVID-19 beneficiaries of the Monsters Corporation foundation], Monsters Corporation, http://monstrov.org/izmeni-bolnitsu/.
12 Poltava Volunteer Group, https://covid19.pl.ua/.
13 Maryna Antonyuk, “Коронавірус стосується кожного. Досвід Полтавської волонтерської групи” [The coronovirus concerns everyone. The experience of the Poltava Volunteer Group], Zmist, June 29, 2020, https://zmist.pl.ua/analytics/koronavirus-stosujetsya-kozhnogo-dosvid-poltavskoji-volonterskoji-grupi.
14 Rzheutska, “Боротьба з COVID-19 в Україні.”
15 Vira Stadnyk, “Я хочу допомогти лікарням під час карантину. Як це можна зробити?” [I want to help hospitals during the quarantine. How can I do it?], Village Ukraine, April 1, 2020, https://www.the-village.com.ua/village/city/asking-question/295991-ya-hochu-dopomogti-likarnyam-pid-chas-karantinu-yak-tse-mozhna-zrobiti.
16 STOP COVID-19, https://stopcovid.loda.gov.ua/.
17 Lyudmyla Tyahnyryadno, “Як пацієнтські громадські організації захищають людей під час пандемії коронавірусу” [How patients’ civic organizations protect people during the coronovirus pandemic], Detector Media, June 22, 2020, https://detector.media/community/article/178159/2020-06-22-yak-patsientski-gromadski-organizatsii-zakhishchayut-lyudei-pid-chas-pandemii-koronavirusu/.
18 Olha Komarova, “Знову на передову: волонтери проти коронавірусу” [Again to the front line: volunteers against the coronavirus], Radio Liberty, March 19, 2020, https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/coronavirus-covid-volontery-ukraina/30497602.html.
19 “Ось бизнеса: кто наиболее вложился в борьбу с коронавирусом” [The business axis: who invested most in the fight with COVID-19], Delo, May 5, 2020, https://delo.ua/business/os-biznesa-kompanii-kotorye-pomogajut-vyzhit-s-367721/.
20 “IT4Life,” Kharkiv IT Cluster, https://it-kharkiv.com/projects/it4life/.
21 Solidarity, https://v2020.org.ua/.
22 Roman Huba, “Сам на сам із порожньою вулицею. Волонтери про допомогу бездомним під час карантину” [Alone on an empty street. Volunteers tell about aid to homeless people during the quarantine], Commons, April 6, 2020, https://commons.com.ua/uk/volonteri-pro-dopomogu-bezdomnim-pid-chas-karantinu/.
23 “Impact of COVID-19 and Its Prevention Measures on Homeless People in Ukraine,” United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, June 16, 2020, http://un.org.ua/images/documents/4970/Briefing_Note_Homeless_People_ENG.pdf.
24 “В Ужгороді благодійний фонд «Благо» допомагає ромам під час карантину” [In Uzhhorod, charity foundation ‘Blaho’ helps Roma during the quarantine], Karpatskyi Obiektyv, April 21, 2020, http://life.ko.net.ua/?p=101423; Tv21 Унгвар, “Товариство Червоного Хреста передало допомогу ромам у Підвиноградові” [Red Cross Society provided aid to Roma in Pidvynohradiv], YouTube video, June 26, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QwY3bLbZjk.
25 Peace Direct, “When Civil Society Responds: COVID-19 in Ukraine,” ReliefWeb, July 17, 2020, https://reliefweb.int/report/ukraine/when-civil-society-responds-covid-19-ukraine.
26 Detector Media, https://ms.detector.media/tag/18151/.
27 “VoxCheck F.A.Q.,” vox ukraine, https://voxukraine.org/uk/voxcheck-f-a-q.
28 INSCIENCE, “No fakes, no drama. В Україні запустили платформу «Науковий метод»” [No fakes, no drama. The ‘Scientific Method’ platform was launched in Ukraine], Hromadskyi Prostir, August 6, 2020, https://www.prostir.ua/?news=no-fakes-no-drama-v-ukrajini-zapustyly-platformu-naukovyj-metod.
29 “The Impact of COVID-19 Pandemic on the Human Rights of Roma in Ukraine,” United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, June 3, 2020, http://www.un.org.ua/images/documents/4932/BN%20C19%20Roma%20ENG.pdf.
30 VGO Coalition, “Коаліція захисту прав осіб з інвалідністю внаслідок інтелектуальних порушень,” Facebook, July 31, 2020, https://www.facebook.com/vgocoalition/posts/2987086291419561.
31 Lyudmyla Tyahnyryadno, “Захист прав дітей в умовах карантину: роль громадських активістів та держави” [Protection of children rights during the quarantine: the role of civic activists and the state], Ukrainian Radio, June 30, 2020, http://www.nrcu.gov.ua/schedule/play-archive.html?periodItemID=2507510.
32 See, for example, Igor Cherniak’s July 2, 2020, Facebook post, https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=694222287805382&set=a.106150719945878&type=3, and the Kharkiv Anticorruption Center Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/anticor.kharkiv.
33 “Appeal of the Patient Community Regarding the Failure of the Medicine Procurement for the Severely Ill Patients,” Patients of Ukraine, May 20, 2020, http://patients.org.ua/en/2020/05/20/zvernennya-do-ministra-ohorony-zdorov-ya-maksyma-stepanova/.
34 “Громадянське суспільство і криза: підсумки опитування” [Civil society and the crisis: survey results], Hromadskyi Prostir, March 24, 2020, https://www.prostir.ua/?focus=hromadyanske-suspilstvo-i-kryza-pidsumky-opytuvannya.
35 Lyudmyla Tyahnyryadno, “У кризах волонтери та благодійники стають більш ефективними” [Volunteers and benefactors become more effective in crises], Detector Media, June 8, 2020, https://detector.media/community/article/177803/2020-06-08-u-krizakh-volonteri-ta-blagodiiniki-stayut-bilsh-efektivnimi/.
36 Tyahnyryadno, “Як пацієнтські громадські організації захищають людей.”
37 “‘HomoCOVIDus’ – як громадянське суспільство працюватиме після карантину?,” Engage Ukraine, May 21, 2020, https://engage.org.ua/homocovidus-iak-hromadianske-suspilstvo-pratsiuvatyme-pislia-karantynu/.
Natalia Shapovalova is an independent researcher based in Kyiv, Ukraine. She is also a member of the Carnegie Civic Research Network.