COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by corona virus, has become the most significant national and global preoccupation for just about everyone in 2020. The pandemic has imposed unprecedented socioeconomic disruptions ranging from business closures to restrictions requiring people to work-from-home, job losses and the new phenomenon called social distancing.

Governments across the world are strained beyond imagination; hence an opportunity exists for Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) to complement public sector COVID-19 responses. A holistic and inclusive response will require putting aside political differences, fostering more coordinated global leadership, and mobilizing more resources and using them rationally. It will also require a considered recognition that government responses will almost naturally have gaps, which present opportunities for CSO vie for all-weather and effective collaborative partnerships towards closing any such gaps.

Since Zambia recorded its first case in March 2020, COVID-19 cases had reached a cumulative total of 772 by 19th May 2020, with 573 active cases, 192 recoveries and seven deaths. High density urban localities with widespread informal settlements are feared to face the highest risk of COVID-19 outbreaks. The Ministry of Health (MoH) has established strategies for tackling the challenges that come with the COVID-19 crisis such as instructions to stay at home if not going out for essential movements and to adhere to social distancing rules. Although much of this information is communicated on digital platforms, seemingly based on the assumption that communities are already digitally-oriented and digitally-resourced, the 2018 ICT Survey by ZICTA indicates that only 20 percent of the population have access to the internet while only 37 percent of households across the country own a working TV with 40 percent owning a functional radio. Mobile phone coverage across the country is relatively high yet households have limited internet coverage. These factors adversely affect the ability of communities to access more complex information, digital assumption should be carefully reconsidered.

Beyond poor digital service access, most communities experience very basic problems such as low access to water and sanitation, electric energy, modern digital amenities and so on. With a staggering 80 percent of the population residing in low cost residential areas that have characteristics of informal settlements with no decent urban planning, the 2015 Living Conditions Monitoring Survey approximates that 20 percent and 18 percent of households use communal toilets and public taps respectively while most of the households share limited room in living spaces, making it nearly impossible to avoid social interactions altogether even when stay-at-home instructions are well-received. Open markets pose an additional challenge as 15 percent of the traders have no fixed business location, making them highly mobile and increasing the risk of infection. Furthermore, the 2018 Labour Force Survey suggests that 40 percent of Zambian workers are self-employed based on community level activities that support livelihoods in low income neighborhoods based on daily wage earnings that inherently require social interactions.

Government needs help and CSOs collaboration through their community networks and resources can aid, particularly in disseminating information about the COVID-19 safety guidelines, generating the vital social learning and adaptations to improve the packaging and dissemination of information thus, supplementing the government response efforts. Information and resources being provided by both MoH should be cognizant of the various socioeconomic contradictions faced by communities, and CSOs, having built superior grassroots competences, can offer their services to complement the efforts of MoH.  This presents a remarkable opportunity that exists for CSOs to join the COVID-19 fight in a meaningful way or accelerate their involvement.

Among other things, CSOs can invest in deliberately identifying core gaps that have already been identified by well-meaning government response strategies such limited digital coverage. CSOs grassroots social mobilization can enhance the limited coverage as well as use their networking competences which make them a formidable potential partner to the battle against COVID-19. Granted, CSOs will need basic public health training to ensure that they are self-protected and also protect others from infection as they go about rendering their services. However, all these potentials for collaboration.

By: Claudia Pollen and Caesar Cheelo

The authors are researchers at the Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR). For details contact: The Executive Director, ZIPAR, MNDP Complex, Cnr John Mbita & Nationalist Roads, P.O. Box 50782, Lusaka. Telephone: +260 211 252559. Email: