What Does COVID-19 Mean for the Future of Political Organizing?

New York City nurses and health workers gather at a COVID-19 Frontline Health Worker Action event on April 6, 2020 in New York City to demand safer working conditions, more personal protective equipment, and free virus testing during the COVID-19 outbreak. (Photo credit: Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

In the past month, we’ve gone from a pre-COVID world to one now deeply suffering from its impact. This transformation has happened with unbelievable quickness, unsettling any sense of normalcy that existed just weeks prior. The current landscape is not even comparable to the one we knew before, with the Australian writer Anwen Crawford noting, accurately, in a recent article for The Monthly that the situation is moving “so rapidly that an observation made in the morning is likely to be out of date by the afternoon.” For organizers or activists, questions loom about how to act best in the midst of the chaos. The old strategies have all been thrown into contention, and people are becoming radicalized en masse.

What COVID is revealing, even on a global scale, is that there was as much crisis to be found within the “normalcy” that preceded the pandemic as there is during it. Now, all those issues have simply bubbled to the surface. How many of us experienced precarity in silence before our moneyed peers began to notice? How many of us were hanging over the ledge before the pandemic roared into action? Unemployment, unreliable housing and ill health were already constant in our lives. It says something about the moral core of countries such as Australia or the United States when thousands of people are but a single paycheck away from complete destitution. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said in a conversation with journalist Mehdi Hasan: ”The virus has taken all of these slow-moving crises and pressed fast forward on every single one…. Even before the virus hit, 40 percent of Americans had less than $400 saved in case of an emergency.”

History shows us again and again that crisis is the most opportune time to rally together and call for a vision of a fairer, egalitarian society, even as other, more imperceptible types of regression take place around us. For now, we need to understand the structures and circumstances that brought us to this point so that we can correctly frame the actions of our slow-acting leaders, rather than resorting to crony individualism or social-media policing. We owe so much more to each other than “blunt moralizing” and gatekeeping, as writer Alison Whittaker aptly said on Twitter. It won’t boost our spirits or create the kind of connection we need when political leaders benefit directly from our disempowerment. If we contribute to the paranoia and hypervigilance, it will only foster authoritarian sentiments; ultimately, our own fear is used to justify cruel border policies and heavier police presence in our streets.

So what can we do? Move from the micro to the macro, away from our competitive, consumerist culture to build a collective identity and repair our public infrastructure. There is a chance this moment can show—as Naomi Klein says in a recent video conversation with Angela Davis—that once we recognize that we’re in an emergency “a great deal becomes possible.” Already, what was widely discredited as part of public policy a few months ago—such as a livable wage (and welfare rates), stable housing, and healthcare for all—is now being regarded as absolutely essential for the preservation of civil society. The seemingly “impossible” has become possible.

We’re in a time where many people around the world suddenly share similar material conditions, which creates a unifying, internationalist potential. While there may be cracks in the shell of our weakening society, we can use them as footholds to reach for something new.

1. Get Involved in Mutual Aid

The community response to COVID-19 has the ability to precipitate mass movements, albeit in a much different form than we’ve seen in the past. It has been emboldening to see the prominence of mutual-aid efforts. These new networks have the potential to unite us together for years to come. For organizers, half the work is getting people to show up in earnest, and we can use these networks, such as newer dedicated Facebook groups, to extend beyond just immediate relief and center our goals toward a future where a more reliable form of relief is embedded in the function of public services. In the meantime, modeling those roles can prepare us for future crises on a more local level and develop an instinct for solidarity and generosity. Disability activists, who are used to employing mutual care and redistribution, are leading this charge with confidence. In a recent article for Bitch, Julia Bak writes, “I’m hopeful we can continue practicing the radical, anticapitalist gesture of caring for one another while upholding the more vulnerable members of our communities. I’m hopeful we can draw from the well of knowledge that disabled people and people with chronic illness have been cultivating this whole time.”

There’s a real possibility that an event of this kind will foster a genuine, global class consciousness—if we handle it smartly. “Taking your neighbor some spaghetti isn’t going to change our mode of production,” Emmy Rakete, organizer from People Against Prisons Aotearoa tells Bitch. “It’s a proof of concept that we’re capable of providing for ourselves outside of the market economy and the state, which are weapons of the enemy.”

2. Protect Renters and Unhoused People

“Being evicted, especially for rent arrears, can impact your ability to house yourself for years,” Leo Patterson Ross, senior policy officer for the Tenants Union of New South Wales, tells Bitch. “So while we’re really worried about this current health crisis, it’s also the economic crisis that has the capacity to destroy lives for many years to come. While there are immediate responses like putting a stop on evictions and seriously considering rent relief and income support, there will also need to be a longer-term response. This is an opportunity to recalibrate the way we house ourselves.”

These concerns may need to be figured out on a case-by-case basis rather than applying a one-size-fits-all model. Looking at cities and towns with similar population density and living situations can help, in this instance. “This current crisis highlights why housing is an essential service, just like water, energy or food,” Ross says. “You need housing at a very fundamental level, so we need a regulatory system that delivers on that. Communities coming together in times of crisis can be the origin point of new, shared understandings because they open people’s eyes to new possibilities.” The best method is to start from your home or community, where you can recognize the context and the vernacular, and where you’re not as likely to be as intimidated by the scale of the changes.

Even creating a WhatsApp group for your street or apartment building can be a useful way to connect with those nearest to you and set the foundations for a holistic cooperative network. Have you spoken to your neighbors about their situation and the viability of a rent strike, or is it better to find people online who rent through your real-estate company? Are there empty spaces or buildings you can take over to provide vital services? Are you having conversations with your union, and can you volunteer your time? Are there resources that others have suggested to you that you could collect in a document and share? Have you called upon local organizations, politicians, and others in your area who have a more direct through line to power?

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3. Help Build Morale

If you’re suited to interpersonal exchange, phone banking and collaborating with local groups might be your focus. Brainstorming media angles and handling the public relations side of things is necessary. Considering that Australia’s government has admitted that it was able to make 10 years of progress happen in 10 days, other countries in a similar position can leverage that subtext to prove they always had the power and capacity to make these necessary changes happen—whether that means childcare, greater public-health services, higher wages, or affordable rent.

When it comes to organizing, it helps to remember that we all have our strengths and varied skill sets, and thinking deeply about how we can apply those to difficult situations is more necessary than ever before. In her 2014 essay “Sick Woman Theory,” Johanna Hedva challenged the masculinism and piety of the lone activist leading a protest, suggesting other ways we can tap into our differences to affect change. While it’s difficult to replace the energizing potential of humans physically meeting together, we can find new ways to build these connections so that organizing remains front of mind even as we deal with newfound isolation. If morale is low and we still feel alienated, it will be more difficult to take the risks we need to rebuild society. There’s a real need for dynamic conversations to take place, and these may take place online, but small meetings that may not have taken place before, even with just our housemates, can be practiced safely.

Many “frontline” workers such as nurses are overworked and under-supported. If you know a healthcare worker, consider offering to help with groceries or even something personal such as making a care package. You can also consider writing a letter to your local politicians or community groups asking them to prioritize funding and support workers in crisis. It’s just not sustainable for them to be working 70-hour weeks for the next six months.

4. Agitate for the Public Good

Many unions have temporarily suspended membership fees, and even though it may not immediately offer you cred in the way of Instagram Story virtue signaling, collective action and union membership are essential when it comes to pushing for real change. Already, employers and states are rolling out risky new quarantine laws, including mobile phone tracking, and the New York Times reports that Hungary’s parliament “passed sweeping emergency measures allowing the far-right populist leader Viktor Orban to rule by decree indefinitely.” This obviously sets a frightening precedent: If measures like these are mimicked across the world, life will become inordinately more difficult for activists as our individual liberties are curtailed (as well as for everybody else).

There are movements for economic justice, and increasing visibility for unemployed workers’ unions that demand our attention. We need to think about the possibility of future strikes and corresponding actions that will resist surveillance and autocracy. Acting alone isn’t going to push back against this relationship and guarantee jobs, healthcare, and security for all, but building up collective union rates is a time-honored way to do so. For Vox, German Lopez argues that “When more people are part of a union, unions don’t just boost their workers’ wages and benefits; they also lift up those they don’t represent.” This doesn’t have to be prescriptive either, and unions are not all the same. Doing some research, taking your time, and identifying which ones apply best to you are the best ways to make you feel most comfortable about your decisions.

COVID-19 has already reshaped the future of political organizing, but it’s on us to figure out exactly what that looks like in our own individual contexts, and in our own lives.

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5. Make Social Media Work for You

Beyond immediate aid, how can we truly organize and continue strategizing during a time of social distancing? Now that we’re all more online, it’s a good time to engage with social media in a way that’s intentional, direct, and organized. Nothing is more annoying than having your attention split between 10 different activist-related Facebook groups and chats, as if we aren’t already distracted enough by the constant onslaught of worrying news stories. Now would be a good time to bite the bullet and attempt some coalition building across social-media platforms and in other digital spaces. A lot of this strategizing has been happening on Facebook because of its accessibility, and we are all now extremely online given that, for many of us, there’s nothing else to do.

While Facebook is nonlinear by design, making it difficult to consume personal updates without getting lost in the feed, it can be a useful starting point before moving the conversation elsewhere, especially if they usually aren’t part of our inner circles. Facebook is a deeply imperfect corporate platform, but these experiments will be necessary to imagine what newer platforms can look like. Take advantage of the opportunities that do still exist.

6. Resist Surveillance Online

The downside of this new strain of online collectivism, of course, is that we live in a time of intense surveillance and data collection. Many different countries are already implementing worrying new tactics to track the movement of COVID-19 that severely impact our civil liberties. Tech companies are also likely having a field day given the amount of information they’re currently receiving. Skype, for example, is notorious for its dated privacy policies. While apps such as Zoom apparently meet HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) standards for confidentiality in virtual counseling sessions, they’ve aroused fears regarding security and reliability during such a precarious moment in history. Despite these concerns, Zoom has become widespread already as a way to implement work-from-home initiative, as well as to replace college courses and traditionally “in-person meetings” for activists, but writers such as Richie Koh have already detailed the way it “allows your boss to track your attention during calls, shares the copious amounts of data it collects with third parties, and has already had a major security vulnerability.” Both students and professors are concerned with the political censorship that may occur given that Zoom records whole meetings to become the intellectual property of the university. But all hope isn’t lost: Apps such as Signal are often safer for meetings, as well as more secure platforms such as Jitsi.

We’re already beginning to see a new type of organizing, one that is necessarily catered to our current moment, innovative for its own sake. How can we take advantage of new digital technologies to agitate against dated systems? How can we organize while police roam the streets? And how can we envision something better than the status quo? COVID-19 has already reshaped the future of political organizing, but it’s on us to figure out exactly what that looks like in our own individual contexts, and in our own lives.

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