Faith and Community Mobilization during COVID-19: Caravane de la Solidarité in Geneva, Switzerland

By: Katherine Marshall

June 8, 2020

Religious Action on COVID-19: Efforts in the Field

Several press stories and accounts by colleagues have described a remarkable effort in Geneva, Switzerland, to meet urgent needs of people suffering during the COVID-19 emergency. The superbly organized program is the subject of stories in the New York Times, the Guardian, and Le Monde. The effort supports families suffering because of the lockdown, with food and other necessities. The reports describe lines of people waiting for weekly food packages, the lines extending over a mile. The numbers rose each week, with about 3,000 families at last count. No questions are asked of those who come for help. There are websites with photographs and numerous local news reports, press, radio, and social media. Volunteer mobilization has extended to other Swiss cities.

The COVID crisis revealed in Geneva and Switzerland more generally, as it has in so many places, the phenomenon of deep inequalities, poverty, and vulnerability in one of the world’s wealthiest cities. The crisis has affected migrants most immediately and harshly; many, because they do not have proper papers, have difficulty in accessing the generous services that are theoretically available to all. COVID thus revealed glaring gaps in social protection.

How has this effort been mobilized? Two sets of questions are important: First, where are the greatest needs and are the most urgent being met? And what can we learn from the way the response is mobilized? It will be helpful to know how far religious institutions are directly involved, where they are securing resources, the motivations of volunteers, and how cooperation among different institutions (including religious communities) is unfolding during the crisis: Is there more or less cooperation? This information could be relevant in looking both to continuing support and to reforms in the future.

In Geneva, the story is as complex as it is heartening in what it reveals about human generosity and capacity to mobilize quickly and effectively. The effort it is led by the Caravane de la Solidarité, a Swiss Association founded in 2015. Its focus has been migrants and hunger; many migrants came from the Balkan states, but the communities today are diverse with people from as far afield as Mongolia and the Philippines. The COVID-linked effort began in early March and initially faced official opposition from authorities because of lockdown restrictions. An outcry and mobilization of different organizations, public and private (Médecins Sans Frontières, for example, and some private companies) allowed the effort to thrive and expand, with a growing distribution. Donations of food have come from all over Geneva, including some outlying municipalities. From this week, the Swiss government is assuming responsibility for the program. 

The Geneva support effort is not a religious enterprise, and religious commitments are not put forward as the primary motivation by those organizing and speaking for the effort. Geneva’s churches and mosques have been closed during the COVID-19 lockdown, and the activities of many of the usual networks and infrastructure of faith communities who regularly provide food has been rather muted. Many volunteers (some 9,000) have religious links, but this is not outwardly visible. One feature is that religious organizations tend to remain discreet in a country where state and church keep their distance, a pattern especially prominent in Geneva.

Meanwhile, several more specific faith organizations have expanded their work during the crisis. The Salvation Army provides food and has opened a hotel (shut to paying guests during the lockdown) for the homeless. Caritas provides vouchers to buy cheaper food in shops, and the Protestant churches provide food rations. In Lausanne, for example, before the crisis the Protestant churches gave out 80 food rations. Today they distribute 350. There are websites where volunteers can sign up.

The Geneva experience illustrates a narrative of community mobilization during the crisis that we are hearing from many cities and countries, from Washington, DC, to Bangkok to Cape Town, South Africa. Much of it has come rapidly and organically, involving many different actors. As in Geneva, an established program often is in the lead. Cooperation appears to be organic and largely local, with support in some cases from existing interfaith organizations but with volunteers and resources coming from a variety of sources, including donations and private sector involvement. In this case, a long-standing organization focused immediately on the urgent support needs of migrants and asylum seekers. The Caravane de la Solidarité has linked its efforts to various non-governmental organizations, private companies, and governments. The full picture of the response, even in a country as well organized as Switzerland, is not available and probably never will be. Exactly how much of what happens has a religious link is still more difficult to discern. 

Beyond the immediate crisis, the COVID emergency has laid bare major gaps in social protection. As life slowly returns to “normal” in Geneva, the problems of poverty and migration remain to be addressed, though perhaps they are more visible now than before. Above all public debates on a set of migration issues are high on Switzerland’s political agenda. Some of the main issues touch on handling of asylum seekers, cooperation with the EU and implementation of Schengen/Dublin and bilateral/multilateral cooperation agreements, and a shift in paradigms from purely “restrictive” migration measures to more cooperative and partnership-based agreements with countries of origin.

Thanks for insights to Marc-Henri Heiniger, World Council of Churches.

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