ECPR

Install the app

Install this application on your home screen for quick and easy access when you’re on the go.

Just tap Share then “Add to Home Screen”

ECPR

Install the app

Install this application on your home screen for quick and easy access when you’re on the go.

Just tap Share then “Add to Home Screen”

Back to Paper Details

How the COVID-19 pandemic challenges civil society. Empirical findings from the field of refugee aid in Germany

Civil Society
Social Capital
Asylum
Clara van den Berg
WZB Berlin Social Science Center
Edgar Grande
WZB Berlin Social Science Center
Swen Hutter
Freie Universität Berlin
Clara van den Berg
WZB Berlin Social Science Center

Abstract

How does the COVID-19 pandemic affect civil society? Does the pandemic lead to a new activation of civil society and a sustainable reinforcement of social capital? Or does it weaken civic engagement? The literature has shown that disasters and crises pose challenges for civil society. On the one hand, they may lead to a significant increase in civic engagement. Such activation of civil society was particularly impressive in Germany during the so-called long summer of migration in 2015. The COVID-19 pandemic has also revealed that civil society can have a significant function in providing public goods. Civil society has strengthened solidarity-based behavior at the beginning of the pandemic, supporting those in need of help and articulating grievances. On the other hand, disasters and crises can also weaken civil society, for example, by damaging social networks and restricting access to public spaces. Such dynamics have become evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, too. During the lockdown phases, the economy and large parts of civil society have temporarily come to a standstill. A striking example are forms of civic engagement for and with refugees emerging post-2015. Due to the pandemic-related restrictions, volunteers who have been an essential pillar of support in asylum shelters for years were - with a few exceptions - no longer allowed to enter the shelters. This paper empirically investigates the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic on civic engagement in the field of refugee aid in Germany. It is based on qualitative interviews with activists from three cities in two consecutive interview rounds in the first half of 2020 and again in 2021. These case studies are part of an ongoing collaborative project on the consequences of civil society activation in the long summer of migration in 2015 (AktivZivil). The first round of interviews with volunteers reveals serious negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. The hard core of volunteers who are still active massively suffered due to the constraints for at least three main reasons. First, the Corona measures significantly restricted direct contact with each other for months. Access bans brought engagement to a near halt in many places. Second, most of those engaged are exposed to higher health risks given their age. Third, digital messaging services such as Skype or WhatsApp could only partially compensate for the lack of face-to-face relationships. Consequently, some of the volunteers took a break from their volunteer work, but some of them decided to give up their commitment altogether. In this vein, the paper will tackle the following questions based on the updated interview material: Will engagement for refugees recover from this shutdown? What impact of the current crisis can we expect for the structures and forms of engagement that emerged in the wake of the long summer of migration?