COVID-19 created an extraordinary social situation in which governments struggle to mitigate the harmful consequences of the pandemic. Challenging times show a society’s resilience and capacity for solidarity and cohesion, the government’s ability to deal with emergencies effectively, the stability and inclusiveness of political systems, and their aptitude to respect democratic values. It is particularly important to examine this period from the point of view of civil society and civil society organizations (CSOs), since civil society plays a pivotal role in the alleviation and dissipation of societal troubles associated with the epidemic, indeed a vital role in curbing the virus. The civil sector’s strength and resilience too is tested. As the studies in this Special Issue show, exploiting the potential of civil society was an option that only some countries have been able to seize - as a result of which they have effectively reduced the consequences of the calamity while increasing a sense of solidarity and belonging in their societies. Others, however, failed to recognize the importance of civil society and interpreted the situation as a “single-actor play on stage”. Neither solidarity nor cohesion play out as values in these latter cases; instead the single actor – government – grabs the opportunity to play the role of the heroic savior and the exclusive problem solver, grabbing for itself both symbolic gains and increasing concentration of power. Citizens are expected to trust no one or no organization except the charismatic leader (or party). Thereby is forged a vertical and hierarchical chain of control, rather than a horizontally linked network of trust and cooperation. The studies and commentaries in this issue cover nine countries located on an imaginary line beginning in the United Kingdom, and extending through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, Israel, India, China and South Korea, representing various socio-political and economic systems. Embedded in elaborated theoretical understandings, this introductory essay examines the research articles of this Special Issue in which authors unfold the dynamics of CSO-government relations in the context of the world pandemic. These accounts sharpen our understanding of the preexisting shape of government–CSO relations. The introduction places the countries on a scale which classifies them according to the characteristics of civil society–government relations unfolding during the pandemic. One of the endpoints is represented by those countries where the CSO’s creative and constructive responses to the social challenges were prevented or blocked by the government. In this setup, CSOs were ignored at best, and restrictions undercut their abilities to contribute to the process of mitigating the pandemic and its consequences. Meanwhile, at the opposite end of this scale, are countries where the government, both central and local, invited civil society partners in the response to COVID-19, orchestrated high-quality and multilevel cross-sectoral cooperation, and provided partners with the necessary (financial) resources. In those cases, CSOs were empowered effectively to participate in a process designed to address the epidemic and its consequences in accordance with principles of participatory democracy.