COVID-19 / Coronavirus: citizen engagement in a historic civic duty

Flavia Milano

Flavia Milano

Between 1918 and 1919 an influenza outbreak rapidly extended around the world and killed 50 million people in 15 months. In 2019 and 2020, when geographical connection is easier and also encouraged by commercial and financial globalization, the Coronavirus outbreak is exponentially superior to the XX Century. Just in the first months after the pandemic was announced, it expanded to over 130 thousand people in over 50 countries.   

The human cost of this moment is unsurmountable. The economic cost has been estimated at $280.000 million dollars only in the first three months of 2020, according to Capital Economics. This translates into additional consequences for all of us, with factories closing and a disproportionate burden for small enterprises, informal economy employees, and people without medical coverage in countries where it is privatized. 

The pandemic is confirmed, and the question is no longer ‘”if” we are going to get it, but “how” to stop it.

As a professional, I have worked in the same area where Ebola erupted in Uganda, and just a few months before in quarantined countries like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. For years, I lived in areas affected by Malaria in Mozambique, cohabitating with this threat as well in Congo, Mali, or even Rwanda and Gambia. I saw closely the gravity of health emergencies due to human contagion at Syrian refugee camps in the Lebanese border, and even Calcutta.

I learned a lot. I learned about fear, but more importantly, that there is a time when one can choose to be part of the problem or the solution. The equation is simple: if one gets sick and is a severe case, one burdens the most potent or most precarious health system in the world. One burdens (and competes) with other severe cases that demand to be intubated on a hospital bed.

As citizens, thanks to new technologies we can take care of ourselves and each other, by monitoring the people close to us and creating simple solidarity networks, so no one stays alone and whoever gets sick has company throughout the process with a primary compact group, beyond family and friends.

Citizen engagement has a decisive role in the upcoming days. Its capacity to organize in record time behind ideals of justice now has the historical opportunity to show its great added value to organize within. Staying inside their homes as indicated by the authorities which, just as citizens, do not know what is coming and are trying to make the best decisions.

The great challenge is that, if protocols are not followed individually, – keeping minimum safety distance of one meter, frequently washing your hands for 20 seconds, and avoiding places with high convergence of people, monitoring fever symptoms, unusual fatigue, cough-, one could become a vector of disease and literally kill people with depressed immune systems.

One of the current situations that, if they weren’t dramatic would be science fiction, is the one occurring in Italy. It looks like it will not be an isolated case. Collapsed by hundreds of thousands of people demanding care at the same time, physicians and nurses are working non-stop within a health system that, with nobility assists and does not leave anybody out. They are facing crowded hospitals, without enough resources, and enlisting retired physicians so they can face the disproportionate demand of emergency patients.

Panic is normal and expected, but does not help. Neither does facing things “my way,” chest up as if it were enough shield, while continuing unsynched to the context, not connected to alerts, and pretending to be a scientist by calling these “exaggerations.” These affirmations, exaggerated or not, come from epidemiologists with several decades of experience. The real change is born when one has the humility to show disposition and will to follow instructions, to be part of the solution.

It helps to use intelligence and a superior civic sense. When a person does not follow emergency protocols, with an attitude of "challenging the adversity" arguing not needing any "absurd new rule" because "it won't happen to me," or feels as if these days can be better used for traveling and visiting a country like Turkey. Basing this on the fact that no cases have been registered there, and in complete neglect to what the moment imposes, is an attitude bordering criminality.


These are not times to think about oneself isolated from the personal obligation to contribute. These are not times for delusions of greatness with an attitude of “nothing is happening” because it is happening, and it is happening now.

These are extraordinary times. Require extraordinary qualities.

The respect to prevent the propagation of the virus, the humility to follow a command that is well defined, in an attempt to organize something that grows at great velocity, that we all face without knowing its dimension well. Following the voice of experts can make a difference between a continued increase in the number of infected people and socio-economic impact at a catastrophic level, or contributing to stop it.

The civic needs of dignity, visibility, empowerment and trust are covered if we choose to act and say strong and clear: “The COVID-19 stops with me.”

Flavia Milano

Flavia Milano

Expert in matters of strategy and policy in the field of citizen engagement. J.D. with a Masters in Development and Poverty Reduction, Specialization in Business and Human Rights, Certification in Public Leadership from Harvard University. She works as Advisor to the Vice-President for Countries at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in the areas of citizen engagement.

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