Collective action on the coronavirus

Ziad A Akl
Tuesday 21 Apr 2020

The state and society must work together in designing and implementing strategies to counter the spread of the coronavirus, writes Ziad A Akl

Another day, another week and another month pass by with the Covid-19 occupying the centre of the world’s attention. Illness, death and precautionary medical procedures have become all too common in millions of people’s daily lives, with the majority of the world’s population now living in fear, uncertainty and pessimism. 

What makes such feelings more acute is the fact that there is very little that the medical research community know about the virus, since it has never before infected humans. In other words, we are faced with daily challenges and are experiencing significant inconveniences in order to fight an enemy that we know very little about. 

It is foolish to think that such a battle can be won by mere individual effort alone, no matter how dedicated it might be. The numbers of coronavirus casualties in different countries over the past few weeks have demonstrated that those fighting the virus according to a proper strategy have seen fewer infections and fewer deaths. 

However, developing and implementing such a strategy to face up to the virus is not an easy task. It requires contextualisation according to the capacities and capabilities of each country concerned, and it also requires an effective matrix of joint collective action between state institutions in coordinating responsibilities. The state and society should be the main guarantees of the strategy’s implementation, and society should be fully engaged with its different segments and components. 

The Covid-19 coronavirus is a fast-acting and sometimes lethal virus that has a diverse set of negative consequences. An efficient strategy to counter the crisis must be divided into two dimensions, one dealing with the outbreak and treatments for the virus and its cure and another dealing with the post-coronavirus phase in which many of its consequences will need to be repaired. The question is how to mobilise society for collective action when the virus is still forcing state and society to implement social distancing to avoid more infections. 

In order to answer this question, it is necessary to look at the broad meaning of collective action and how inter-disciplinary it can be. Taking the case of Egypt as an example, collective action in society over the past few years, specifically since the events of 2011, has gained a notorious reputation associated with chaos and random violence. Collective action has been largely polarised by political tensions and the transformations taking place in the country over the past few years. It is now time to change public perceptions of collective action and to depoliticise the idea of people acting together, especially on non-contentious and cooperative ground like fighting the coronavirus. 

Egypt has thus far been relatively successful in identifying a strategy and creating sufficient levels of cooperation between the state and society in order to fight the spread of the coronavirus. There have been few deaths as a result of infection with the virus in relation to the size of the population and the overall shortage of public space. However, daily deaths are taking place, and new problems are appearing every day. While the main concern now is fighting the spread of the virus and treating those infected, it will soon be time to deal with other consequences that will require more than the role practised solely by the state. 

A few examples of how society could be involved through collective action in fighting the consequences of the virus have appeared, demonstrating how society and local communities need to cooperate during this dire challenge. The burials of those who have died of Covid-19 have signalled one of the negative consequences of the virus on Egyptian society, when panic and fear and not collective action characterised the reaction in one small Delta village. This situation shows the three different dimensions of the strategy Egypt is using in fighting the virus.   

The strategy designed by the state to counter the virus has been largely institutional, with close connections between the Ministry of Health and the municipal and local authorities and other state institutions performing related services. The strategy is based on inviting citizens to cooperate with the state as the only entity able to contain and counter the virus. 

The next step has been to encourage interactions between state and society in implementing decisions and carrying out measures to confront the threat of the virus. In the incident referred to above, some villagers protested against the burial of a person who had died of Covid-19, falsely spreading alarm at the potential danger of the burial for other villagers who could be infected as a result. 

The authorities stepped in after being notified by the family of the deceased and other villagers, and soon representatives of the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Health were present at the scene to ensure that a proper and safe burial took place. It is very important to keep active channels of interaction between state and society open during times of fear and uncertainty. 

Finally, collective action appeared in the aftermath of this incident through the different responses to the burial of medical doctor Sonia Aref. The Doctors Syndicate, different social-media platforms, the print and visual media, residents of different villages in the Nile Delta and the government all condemned the earlier incident and took measures to stand up against negative and irrational collective action that tries to create a sense of panic. 

Society through interaction and coordination with its different elements plays a functional role in creating patterns of collective action that raise awareness and build capacities for the long-term battle against the consequences of the virus. The state is not an actor in the third dimension of the strategy, but is rather a facilitator, mainly through providing the environment in which society can offer creative and positive collective action during times of crisis. 

We still do not know much about the new coronavirus, but at least we have a strategy in place to confront it that has proven to be fairly effective. In this strategy we all have roles to play as individuals, communities, unions, institutions and executive authorities. We know what we have to do in order to fight this virus, even if for the time being we do not know as much as we would like about it.

The writer is a senior researcher and director of the Programme for Mediterranean and North African Studies at the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.


*A version of this article appears in print in the  23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly


*A version of this article appears in print in the  23 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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