Building inclusive and welcoming societies in a time of COVID divisions

As the human and economic toll of the coronavirus crisis continues to reveal itself, there has been little to celebrate. One positive story, however, has been the way local communities right across the globe have responded, from coming together to clap for our nurses, doctors and key workers, to locally self-organising and providing mutual support to help our most vulnerable neighbours. It has shown us the potential for positive relationships between different groups in society and that a new social contract with each other is possible.

But as our recent Good Society Forum Webinar on building inclusive and welcoming societies highlighted, this is against a very challenging backdrop that will require significant focus and resource to achieve. We heard fascinating regional, national and international insights from Yasir Naqvi, CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (ICC); Dr Colleen Thouez, Director of the Welcoming and Integrated Societies Initiative at the Open Society Foundations; Vladimir Horvath of the Strengthening Inter-Ethnic Political Discourse and Minority Inclusion project at the National Democratic Institute (NDI); and Samar Ali, Founding President of the Millions of Conversations campaign.

Yasir Naqvi told us how the pandemic had “laid bare the fault lines in our society”, where even in a tolerant Canada, 51% of Canadians felt that discrimination and prejudice would increase because of COVID-19 and which went up to 69% for Canadians of colour. The fears and anxieties of newer Canadians, particularly those of Chinese origin, were so high that 81% were worried about taking public transport, a particularly worrying number given the number of that population who comprised keyworker positions and were required to travel. Colleen Thouez highlighted the many overlooked communities in epicentres like New York City — undocumented migrants, refugees, displaced peoples — that were falling short of government support and which further evidenced how the already marginalised were the most severely impacted.

Vladimir Horvath shared his native Slovakian context, and how other consequences of the pandemic — such as the closure of schools in the country — were having a disastrous impact on the county’s 450,000 Roma community, many of whom already lived in poverty with little or no access to the appropriate equipment or connectivity required to engage in alternative distance learning. We also heard of the intentional othering of the Roma community, wrongly portrayed as the source of the disease, with the Government sending in the army to Roma settlements to help manage supposed outbreaks. Unfortunately, other political leaders in central Europe have also been using the cover of COVID-19 to foment hostile environments and division — including introducing widespread travel bans, making use of emergency police powers and using the distraction of the pandemic to repeal existing recognition of minorities.

Testing in Roma settlements in Jarovnice, Slovakia (Photo: Lýdia Kokavcova)

This intentional stoking of fear and resentment — leading to higher incidences of xenophobia, inter-generational angst, and rising tensions between cities and regions — is something Samar Ali identifies as a growing phenomenon in the United States: “We are really seeing systematic efforts to demonise the other coming together in tense and destructive ways”. But the Millions of Conversations campaign, seeking to undivide America, has a three-step approach to combat it: disrupting toxic cycles of fear, hate and violence; working to change the narratives that demonise the other; and challenging, and countering disinformation/misinformation campaigns.

“We are really seeing systematic efforts to demonise the other coming together in tense and destructive ways” — Samar Ali

Samar stresses the critical importance of putting a halt to stage one of the “cycle of fear, hate and violence”, which is the labelling of the other. By doing so, we prevent the demonising label of the other that is designed to induce animosity, which then does not build on fear and lead to blame, which in turn doesn’t lead to the anger that then ultimately hardens into hate, saving us from the political violence that is becoming all too familiar. On the same day of the webinar, an example was given of how a demonising advert in The Tennessean newspaper targeting the Muslim community was going to be tackled using the campaign principles, which we since know was successfully halted.

This plea to build a new public square, effective in its inclusivity and in its ambition to drive forward a humanising manner that nullifies authorising conditions for cruelty, can also be seen in Canada with two ICC campaigns: the Citizen Resilience Project, which empowers targeted recipients of online misinformation and disinformation to not only discern between correct and incorrect prejudicial information but to also respond; and the #StandTogether campaign, which boldly asks Canadians if you are clapping for diverse and minority essential workers today, will you continue to do so tomorrow? A key takeaway for this work was the conscious need to thread together and balance the work of disrupting activity that seeks to divide versus the work to bring people together over shared values and to build trust. It cannot all happen at the same time and must be a process, beginning with the “right message through the right messenger on the right platform”.

So just how do we scale this work and ensure its impact? We heard the Open Society Foundation’s commitment to working with local governments and local partnerships, from providing direct assistance to vulnerable communities in New York through to supporting city leadership across the country to ensure their effective engagement with local service providers and NGOs. This is born out of a necessary humility to be responsive to the needs of local communities, but also to be effective in times of deep national polarisation through the power and potential of locally elected leaders, who often have a far higher obligation to building bridges with their local mandates. This impact is already being proven through city mayors cooperating on global issues including migration and the environment.

The launch of the Mayors Migration Council in Marrakech, December 2018

Such local forms of leadership also enable a richer diversity of voice and representation, as shown by Slovakia’s 53 Roma Mayors and the more than 500 Roma local councillors across the country, leading to more informed decision-making. Unsurprisingly, there was consensus across the panel of the need to focus efforts at the local level first and build up, through coalitions, both nationally and internationally. We heard of Marcelo Ebrard, the Mexican Foreign Minister, argue for inclusion to be part of foreign policy priority objectives, as a precursor to peace and security. Such notions might previously have been difficult to fathom, but as Yasir Naqvi noted with hope: “the pandemic has given us an opportunity to reset. This has put a break on the old normal and created an opportunity for us to create the new normal”.

The full webinar is available on YouTube.

by Nizam Uddin, Co-Founder and Co-Host at Good Society Forum

The Good Society Forum is a community of change-makers around the world with a common quest to building the good society.