Cooperatives and wider SSE enterprises respond to COVID-19 disruptions, and government measures are being put in place

Cooperatives and other SSE enterprises around the world are being affected by and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in various ways. Some governments have also begun to integrate cooperatives, and the wider SSE in emergency response strategies.

Noticia | 24 de abril de 2020
©Collin Mcclain
With the spread of the COVID-19 and its economic and social impacts, the world is facing a time of unprecedented uncertainty. It is a time when things that were previously unimaginable are now a reality. The mandatory shutdowns of non-essential businesses and the confinement of billions of people to their homes, are revamping societies and economies. The impact is unevenly distributed for households, workers and businesses, further exacerbating inequalities that already exist. Cooperative and other SSE enterprises, such as mutuals, associations, foundations and social enterprises, their workers and communities are also being impacted, albeit asymmetrically depending on the sectors and the stage of the spread of the virus in their region or country.

Historically, during periods of crises, the values of cooperation, solidarity, and mutualism experience an increase in popularity. It is also during such times that there is a surge in membership and turnover of cooperatives and the wider SSE. This was the case during and in the aftermath of the 2001-2 financial crisis in Argentina, the 2007-8 global financial crisis and the 2009-17 debt crisis in Greece. Similarly, cooperatives and wider SSE organizations have been key community actors in responding to public health epidemics such as AIDS (Swaziland, Vietnam), the relief and reconstruction efforts after natural disasters (Japan, Australia) and in post conflict settings (Sri Lanka, Rwanda).

In the context of the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, cooperatives and wider SSE organizations around the world are mobilizing to provide relief for their workers, members, and communities. Local and national governments are starting to integrate cooperatives and the wider SSE into public relief strategies in some countries as partners and beneficiaries.

This article includes examples of cooperative and wider SSE responses to different aspects of the crises in the immediate to short term. Most of these responses come from secondary and tertiary level organizations and not primary level enterprises. Some government response strategies that integrate cooperatives, their members, workers and the wider SSE are also included in the text.


Workplace safety and working conditions

Cooperatives and other SSE enterprises are:
  • Taking hygiene measures at workplaces and front stores. They are introducing body temperature controls at the entrance of warehouses and factories Floor markers are put in place to show where to stand when clocking in and off. Extra buses are scheduled to ensure that workers can practice social distancing on their daily commute to and from the farm. (Legacoop in Italy), Calgary Coop in Canada, Desert Joy in Tunisia).

Internal operation management

Cooperatives are:
  • Expanding telework arrangements and cancelling or postponing events that require face to face exchanges (ACE in the US, Open Co-op in the UK, Pellervo in Finland).
  • Increasing pay for those working through the lockdown, while asking vulnerable workers to stay home on paid special leave (Foodstuffs in New Zealand, Calgary Coop in Canada).

Worker protection

Cooperatives are:
  • Modifying paid time-off policies to ensure that workers who are absent due to illness or to care for sick family members do not suffer loss of income or other benefits (REI in the US).
  • Higher-paid workers deciding to take a pay-cut in order to ensure that the lower-paid workers could get full pay and are protected from being laid off during the closures (FC Barcelona in Spain).
  • Creating new jobs to address the upsurge in demand in the retail sector (Coop Group in the UK).
  • Ensuring front-line workers have uninterrupted access to childcare services throughout the COVID-19 crisis, by waiving fees financed through numerous means including using their own funds and contributions from community members (Midcounties Coop in the UK).

Supply chain stabilization

Cooperatives are:

Production innovation and adaptation

Industrial cooperatives are:

Broadening access to relevant information

Cooperatives, enterprises and their secondary and tertiary organizations and networks are:
  • Surveying member organizations on the impact of the pandemic (BCCM in Australia, JCA and JA-Zenchu in Japan).
  • Preparing video messages, whatsapp groups, Q&As, guidance notes, establishing online resource platforms and organizing webinars to give HR, governance, legal, and risk management advice to member cooperatives on the pandemic and possible mitigation measures (SEWA Cooperative Federation in India, CCU in Bulgaria, Hanover Consumer Cooperative Society, Wales Co-operative Centre and Co-operatives UK in the UK, NRECA and the NCBA in the US, Fundación Capital in Colombia, School for Social Entrepreneurs in the UK, Social Enterprise World Forum, European Commission’s Social Economy Community).
  • Monitoring government relief measures for workers and businesses as to whether they include cooperatives and wider SSE enterprises and organizations. They have set up hotlines and organized webinars to provide advice, including through webinars to explaining the new measures, whether cooperatives and other SSE organizations qualify for them and how they can go about accessing them (Mondragon Corporation in Spain, BCCM in Australia, Coop Group in the UK, NCBA in the US).
  • Tracking latest responses and initiatives from the global cooperative and credit union movements, providing links to the latest guidance for cooperative businesses (Cooperative News in the UK).

Support for customers and communities

Agricultural and retail cooperatives, and SSE organizations involved in production and distribution of food and other necessities are: 
  • Helping vulnerable people who cannot go shopping by themselves including through partnering with municipalities, local civil society organizations and volunteers (Coop in Italy, Co-op Group in the UK, Coop Denmark, Migros and Coop in Switzerland, Spraoi agus Sport and St Munchin’s Community Centre in Ireland)
  • Ensuring the safety of shoppers and workers (Brazil, Italy, UK, Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, and Japan).
  • Working with community partners in responding to the growing needs created by school closures as elementary schools used to provide lunch boxes for disadvantaged children (ZEN-NOH in Japan, and iCOOP in Korea).
  • Producing service vouchers for disadvantaged populations, such as homeless people, for use in affiliated establishment offering hygiene and food services (Groupe Up Cooperative in France). 
  • Raising funds to help those hard-hit by the lockdowns through numerous means, including drawing from higher level management salaries, having members donate their unspent shopping reward points toward support funds (Coop Group in the UK).
  • Supporting community members to grow food at home by providing seeds, starter kits and knowledge resources (GIY social enterprise in Ireland).
Health cooperatives are:
Cooperatives and social enterprises in the education and cultural service sectors are:
  • Putting in place e-learning courses designed to help people cope with the mental stress of the pandemic and lockdown on topics such as stress, anxiety and depression in interactive, easy to understand segments (Cooperative College in the UK, child care social enterprises like ReCreate and Sensational Kids in Ireland, Erk Mead in Ethiopia).
Consumer cooperatives, such as those in utility (provision of basic services such as energy, water, tele-communications, cleaning, recycling etc.), housing and in financial services are:
  • Waiving late fees, offering to reduce contracted power without any costs, and allowing for special payment arrangements for members (NRECA in the US, Som Energia cooperative in Spain).
  • Providing broadband services to support affected school systems, enabling online classes for high school students regardless of whether their families subscribe to the service (Orcas Power and Light Co-op in the US).
  • Giving tenants the option to postpone payments of rent for several months in the light of the COVID-19 crisis (Coop, Denmark, Cooperative Housing Federation in Canada).
  • Organizing community events in cooperative housing complexes, such as singalongs from balconies, while practicing social distancing (Fieldstone Cooperative in Canada).
  • Providing consultation services and low interest loans to members who are affected by COVID-19 (JA Bank and Rokin labour bank in Japan).
  • Working with members to help consumers stay financially healthy during this emergency by offering loan modifications and fee waivers and creating new loan products to meet members’ needs (CUNA in the US, Desjardins Group in Canada).
  • Implementing fast-track credit approval procedures for urgent cases, allowing credit payments to be deferred for up to six months, eliminating penalties and additional costs for extensions of maturity and credit from customers, and speeding up claims handling process for insured clients (Crédit Agricole in France and Agricultural Credit Cooperatives in Turkey, Vancity Credit Union in Canada).
  • Contributing funds to Covid-19 emergency to be used toward medical supplies and equipment to increase the readiness of public health institutions (Co-operative Bank of Kenya).

Advocating for government emergency measures

Cooperatives, their organizations and SSE enterprises and their networks are:
  • Calling on governments and regional and international organizations to rethink the current development paradigm and to strengthen the multilateral system and solidarity networks (RIPESS), AIM, FairBnBcoop),
  • Advocate to stabilize the supply chains in certain sectors such as the pharmaceutical and medical one (AIM open letter to EU); revamping global supply chains towards cleaner and more localized agricultural production (Urgenci)
  • Advocating with their national governments for emergency packages that can ease the social and economic pressures of the pandemic on their workers, members, clients and communities. (Fondazione Centro Studi Doc, Italy).
  • Calling on governments to include cooperatives, mutual associations and social enterprises in relief packages (Social Enterprise Sector Alliance in Australia, Co-operatives UK, Italian Cooperative Alliance, NCBA in the US). Asking to be represented in the emergency task forces and committees established at the local and national levels (NRECA in the US, the Spanish Confederation of Social Economy Enterprises in Spain).
  • Calling for the establishment of specific relief funds that would allow cooperatives and other social and solidarity economy organizations to mitigate the negative effects of the crises and to be more effective partners in delivery of services especially for the most vulnerable. (Euclid network, COOP Europe, the Spanish Confederation of Social Economy Enterprises in Spain, the European Network of Social Integration Enterprises in Europe, Forum Nazionale Terzo Settore in Italy Social Economy Europe, ACEVO in UK )
  • Advocating with the government for measures such as income support for their members (Doc Servizi in Italy, SEWA Cooperative Federation in India).
  • Advocating with the government regarding eligibility of members, such as secondary level cooperative groups, to benefit from measures to support staff in business entities hit hard by COVID-19 (BCCM in Australia).

Creation of fund-raising campaigns and realigning already existing funds for recovery

Many foundations, cooperatives, social enterprises and their networks are:


It is important that the government measures launched in response to the crises take into account the full range of enterprises and organisations that are diverse not only in size but also in legal form and mode of governance. Some governments have integrated cooperatives and the wider SSE into their emergency response strategies by including them in their measures and reaching out to them for partnerships in combatting the pandemic and its devastating impacts.

Government agencies responsible for cooperatives have already started establishing cooperative response committees consisting of cooperative leaders to work alongside the government agencies in implementing measures to combat COVID-19. Such committees are expected to continue playing a role post-pandemic reconstruction including on the provision of relief to cooperatives and their members (CCRC in Kenya).

In the immediate to short term an urgent issue that affects all businesses, including cooperatives and other SSE enterprises, is that of financing to help with their short-term cash flows. Government agencies have been providing businesses grants, affordable loans and guarantees as well as temporary tax exemptions. Cooperatives and other SSE enterprises are eligible to access these financial benefits in a number of countries (Finland, South Korea).

As cooperatives and SSE enterprises and organizations around the countries affected from the virus are already involved in providing relief for their members and communities through extended services, it is important for governments to establish specific cooperative and SSE and community funds that can allow these organizations to be more effective partners in delivery of services especially for the most vulnerable. Alternative forms of financing including through foundations, are also coming forward in supporting efforts of cooperatives and wider SSE enterprises, including through specific funds to respond to the needs of their workers, businesses and communities (South Korea, UK, Canada).

Some governments have provided support for (expediting licences, import/purchase of equipment for production) and established partnerships with cooperatives and other SSE enterprises and organizations to temporarily convert products and services linked to COVID-19 related needs. These conversions range from support for producing masks, hand sanitizers, gloves and respirators to converting spaces to hospitalize patients and transporting essential goods. Others have given special permits for cooperatives to distribute produce, such as fish, while traditional markets stay closed (Goa fishery cooperatives in India).

Regional level public institutions have also put measures in place. In the case of Europe, these measures include temporary asset purchase programmes for private and public sector securities, financing for SMEs, and temporary support to mitigate unemployment risks. These measures often including majority of cooperatives and some SSE enterprises and organizations (European Central Bank, Pandemic Emergency Purchase Programme and European Investment Banking Group, European Commission’s SURE scheme).

When the emergency phase of the public health crisis is over, societies and economies will need to be re-energized. In the medium to long term, the measures will need to look at preserving business and decent work. In supporting the reactivation and adaptation of enterprises to the new conditions after the virus is contained, it will be important to take into account, specific role that cooperatives and SSE enterprises can play in working toward a fairer and more inclusive economy that integrate values of mutuality, economic justice and organizational democracy. For instance, in the case of bankruptcies, supporting worker-buy-outs of businesses through worker cooperatives will need to be a part of government measures for preserving jobs. In follow up to the strikes and worker walkouts in a number of platform economy businesses, cooperative alternatives could also be explored and supported by governments, including through enabling policies and institutions. Platform cooperatives constitute a proven model to organize independent work in such a way that physical contact can be avoided to save jobs.

These examples are based on self-reporting from partners via their websites, social media communications, and direct messages. If you have any further updates from cooperatives and other social and solidarity economy (SSE) organizations, kindly share with us at