Kirsty McNeill

Effective Activism in a Time of Coronavirus: what are we learning six months in?

Kirsty McNeill of Save the Children had a great piece on Global Dashboard this week. It mainly focuses on the UK, but I think its relevance is much wider than that. I’ve cut down the original for the tl;dr community, but if you have time, do read the full post here.

In a fight between a rewind and a revolution, revolution’s gonna lose

The crisis has seen a new lease of life for the slogan “we won’t go back to normal when normal was the problem”,  first used in protests in Chile towards the end of 2019 but now turning up everywhere from graffiti in Hong Kong to the fridge doors of activists to university research programmes

That positioning is understandable – many of our missions face an existential threat from climate change and the need to dismantle white supremacy and racism could hardly be more urgent. But it is precisely because the stakes are so high that we have to focus on winning big rather than talking big. 

How should we respond to the evidence that many people are absolutely desperate for a “return to normal” and not sure if they’d like to change very much, never mind “everything”? Roger Harding’s essay here charts that the crisis has seen a big spike in demand for nostalgic television and music. If what’s happening in popular culture is any guide, people want to look back before they move forward. We need to accept that in a fight between a rewind and a revolution, revolution’s gonna lose. 

Fighting campaigns that can deliver immediate and tangible change isn’t a substitute for bolder transformation, but it is a necessary precursor to it, because strategies which confuse a public appetite to build back better with one to build back completely different just aren’t going to attract a big enough base. As one union organiser told me, “there’s no point asking people to trust you to organise a revolution if you can’t get a microwave in the staff canteen”.

‘Don’t mourn, organise’ is the wrong mantra for our times. We need to do both

‘new front in the culture war’ is opening and it’s increasingly clear that “retoxification” is not a by-product of the strategy, it is the strategy.

The Exec Sum

As furlough ends, unemployment climbs and the government’s reputation for economic competence takes a battering, there’s no strategy available to the government other than dialling up the cultural campaign. We can expect to see more, and not less, of “the war on woke” and an increased push from the ‘Britannia Unchained’ generation in the cabinet to do away with regulations and protections.

If that analysis is right, activists have a strategic choice to make and only a matter of weeks to make it: are we here to win a culture war, or to end one?

Of course we need to spend this period re-strategising, including asking ourselves the question campaigners most hate to answer, but need to: if you’re so smart, how come you’re getting beaten so badly? But more than that, we need to give ourselves the time to mourn what we have lost. 

Personal agency can be a tremendous source of resilience and optimism in normal times. It is, however, a recipe for burn-out and guilt in these times.

We have literal grieving to do – for all the people who have died before their time, the pain compounded by the knowledge that structural racism and poverty have done as much damage as biology here. And we have grieving of the more abstract sort to do too – the kind of coming to terms with loss we all need to do when something we truly value, not just desire, has gone.

The Collective Pyschology Project’s “This Too Shall Pass” report gives us a toolkit for how to grieve but it is actually earlier work by its founder Alex Evans that tells us why activists have to learn to grieve. If we don’t work through denial, anger, bargaining and depression properly, we’ve no hope of getting to acceptance and, therefore, to a place where we can see clearly what our next move should be. 

Personal agency can be a tremendous source of resilience and optimism in normal times. It is, however, a recipe for burn-out and guilt in these times. We have to accept we can’t campaign our way out of a pandemic, and we can’t always beat overwhelming political odds. 

“Don’t mourn, organise” is the wrong mantra for now. Let’s do both. 

Think global, act local has come of age – but we need to buttress it

Counter-intuitively, we seem to be feeling simultaneously more local and more global than ever before. This will be welcome news for community organisers and internationalists alike, but we shouldn’t take it for granted that this feeling will be permanent.

Part of what is going on here is the public’s sophisticated understanding of the coronavirus – that the experience might be universal, but it is it not uniform. We understand that there are people in precarious employment in every country, parents struggling to put food on the table in every country, children trapped on the wrong side of the digital divide in every country. Lockdown and school closures in particular have been near-universal experiences, but their effects have been far from uniform between countries or inside them. People get that both local neighbourliness and multilateralism can provide particular protections, mitigating catastrophe and smoothing out vulnerabilities a bit. 

Support for both local mutual aid efforts and international solidarity efforts is, in other words, conditional. We instinctively feel the local and the global are the right levels to deal with different elements of the pandemic and its effects, but we want to be sure everyone is pulling their weight, and we’re getting enough out of it for what we’re willing to put in.

So if we want people to move towards more active civic involvement, to make what the New Citizenship Project calls the big shift “from consumer to citizen”, we need to introduce the idea of political activism as something that sits in service of, and not in a separate realm to, people’s individual moral choices and willingness to muck-in locally. 

An imperfect message that gets heard is better than a perfect one that doesn’t

The social change sector globally is currently producing a large number of really superb messaging guides around coronavirus and there are some brilliant research projects on the go about attitudes about everything from climate change to regulation to social security. The challenge for our movements is whether we can do enough with the insights once we have them.

Two barriers present themselves. The first is that research which shows how to communicate for one purpose (for example, to shore up support for aid, in the case of our Public Insight 2020 project) will not necessarily be widely adopted by people with a brief to communicate for another important purpose.

we’ve got a lot of money being spent crafting narratives no-one is

going to hear.

Meanwhile, many of the organisations that are nimble enough to internalise the insight lack the reach to make it count. Across our fields we’ve got a lot of money being spent crafting narratives no-one is going to hear. It’s time to get much more serious about thinking about our routes to market when we embark on insight work and we need to be willing to pay for the distribution as well as the design of the messages. 

While it’s massively welcome that we’ve seen a big uptick in the amount of insight work big NGOs and funders are investing in, it’s all pretty academic if we’re not overlaying it with an understanding of political geography and overlaying that in turn with investment in local power. 


We are only six months into the coronavirus crisis and don’t yet know when – or how – it will end. What we do know is that activism is unlikely to be what speeds our exit from the crisis, but it is the single biggest determinant of whether that exit is equitable. This moment demands our best ever work and we won’t do it without plans to deal with the biggest strategic challenges in front of us. This list of four may be incomplete, but it’s where I think we should begin.  

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