Felix S. Bethke, Jonas Wolff | 2020

COVID-19 and shrinking civic spaces: patterns and consequences

in: Zeitschrift für Friedens- und Konfliktforschung, Online first, 2 October 2020.


In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, a majority of countries worldwide have introduced severe limitations on the freedom of assembly, if not an outright lockdown, in many cases complemented by restrictions on further civil and political rights. Although restrictions were generally considered necessary to save lives and protect health care systems from overburdening, they also pose the risk of government overreach, that is, governments may use the pandemic as a convenient opportunity and justification to impose restrictions for political purposes.

In this sense, COVID-19 may give yet another substantial boost to a global trend that has been unfolding since the early 2000s: the shrinking of civic spaces, which is characterized by an increase in government restrictions that target civil society actors and limit their freedoms of assembly, association, and expression. The aim of the paper is to assess civic space restrictions that have been imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic with a view to exploring their immediate consequences as well as their potential mid-term implications for civil society organizations in general and contentious civic activism in particular.

We do so by, first, providing evidence from multiple data sources about the global spread of COVID-19-related restrictions over time and across countries. Second, we identify key dynamics at work in order to assess the immediate consequences and the potential mid-term implications of these restrictions. These dynamics are illustrated by looking at experiences from individual countries (including Cambodia, Germany, Hungary, and Lebanon).

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