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Coronavirus: the protests that can’t take place and what that might mean

On 3 August 2019, civil servants protest in Hong Kong against the proposed extradition law On 3 August 2019, civil servants protest in Hong Kong against the proposed extradition law
07 May
With protest movements across the world stymied by the pandemic, Angus Parker asks what effect this might have

With demonstrations popping up around the world, 2019 was labelled the ‘Year of the Street Protest’ by both the Financial Times and the Washington Post. Protests of varying sizes and magnitude occurred across more than 100 countries, including Hong Kong, Russia, Sudan, Algeria, Iraq, Chile and Bolivia, to name only a few.

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Research from the Center for Strategic and International Studies showed that globally, mass political protests reached a historic high in 2019 and, given that street protests had been growing at an annual rate of 11.5 per cent during the previous decade, it seemed likely that this would continue into 2020. However, for now, the emergence of Covid-19 has negated any chance of this.

There has been a contraction in the number and extent of protests – nationally and locally – as people are either prevented or dissuaded from taking to the streets. As Richard Gowen, director of UN think tank International Crisis Group, put it: ‘No-one jumps on the barricades when they think the barricade might have a virus on it.’

In Hong Kong, a ban on public gatherings of more than four people has reduced the widespread unrest that characterised the second half of 2019 to a handful of small, localised incidents; while in Thailand, student-led pro-democracy protests have similarly stalled during the pandemic. In India, demonstrations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA) were cancelled following the implementation of a nationwide lockdown; in Russia, the opposition movement to President Putin’s attempt to extend his term limit as far as 2036 called off protests, following new measures that limit public gatherings and revoke protest authorisations.

shutterstock 13340038018 March 2019: In Algeria protesters demand the withdrawal of then-president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika

Elsewhere, in Algeria, 56 consecutive weeks of protest have come to an end. The protests forced the country’s president to resign last year, and continued into 2020 as demonstrators called for change to the political system. This led to the country’s new president banning any form of protest for over a year under the pretext of stopping the spread of the virus.

This response has been replicated by other governments under similar pressure in numerous countries. For example, in Chile, after student groups and social organisations initially announced a temporary suspension of protests due to the coronavirus outbreak, President Pinera declared a ‘state of catastrophe’, bringing an abrupt end to five months of mass protests and placing the armed forces in charge of public order and the movement of people and goods.

These examples are not merely outliers but rather a handful of countries that are part of a larger trend. Data from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) provides evidence of this inverse correlation between the spread of the virus and the number of protests globally. In 2019, the number of demonstrations worldwide never fell below 1,000 per week, peaking at more than 2,000 in the first week of November. However, since the second week of March, following the WHO’s announcement that the outbreak had become a global pandemic, there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of demonstrations with a global average of only 500 events per week.

Of the protests that have continued, the majority have been related to governmental responses to Covid-19 – whether that be in relation to the measures that have been implemented to contain the disease or the policies created to support groups suffering from the expected economic downturn. In Brazil, for instance, there have been six consecutive weeks of protests across multiple cities, with citizens banging pots from their homes in opposition to President Jair Bolsonaro, who has consistently downplayed the severity of the crisis and refused to institute social distancing measures. This attitude has also caused ruptures within Bolsonaro’s own administration, leading to the firing of Brazil’s health minister on 16 April, following internal disagreements over the president’s desire to reopen businesses and restart the economy.

shutterstock 160518192714 December 2019: In Bangkok the crowd shows 'three fingers' to the government during an unauthorised flash mob rally at the skywalk on Pathumwan Intersection

Elsewhere, there have been protests in some form or other in Venezuela, Cuba, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Iran and Lebanon – once again, to name only a few. Even in Germany, a country that has been hailed as the European nation that has responded most successfully to the crisis, there have been weekly gatherings in Berlin of several hundred people in opposition to the tightening of rights.

The diversity and geographic range of protests demonstrates that the virus itself – or the effects of the virus and how it has been handled by authorities – have become a novel cause around which people have rallied. Yet it would be wrong to assume that Covid-19 has eradicated previously potent protest movements. As the pandemic prevents traditional forms of protest, alternative means of ensuring demonstrations are still heard amid the cacophony of coronavirus coverage are being pursued. Demonstrations that were playing out on streets prior to the outbreak have moved online, operating through hashtags and digital-based mediums.

The climate change protests led by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, which became a common sight across thousands of cities every Friday, have continued with ‘digital strikes’, utilising hashtags such as #FridaysForFuture. In Russia, protestors are using Yandex.Maps, the Russian equivalent of Google Maps, to drop pins in front of government buildings, with protestors demanding that the authorities either introduce an official state of emergency, which would lead to the provision of social assistance from the government, or lift restrictions to enable people to return to work.

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Other movements have utilised the streaming services provided through social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram to rally support and continue some form of protest. In Israel last month, more than half a million people took part in a ‘virtual protest’ broadcast through Facebook Live directed against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party, which faced criticism for preventing the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, from appointing a new speaker and forming parliamentary committees.

In this way, this crisis has once again demonstrated the importance of social media to 21st century opposition and demonstrations. Three decades ago, communication and interaction on such scale, within a crisis such as this, would have been impossible and movements would have lost impetus and support precipitously. However, while digital and doorstep dissent may be an innovative means of continuing protest movements, these forms of demonstration do not compare to the visibility and potency of street protests and mass gatherings, which are both harder to overlook and induce greater levels of disruption. Street protests are also largely accessible to all members of a society – regardless of socioeconomic status – something not true for online protests where internet access is a prerequisite for participation.

shutterstock 134476747415 March 2019 - 20,000 Australian students gather in a climate change protest and march from Sydney Town Hall Square to Hyde Park

The impact of these new forms of protest are likely to be minimal, beyond maintaining some form of collective group identity – at least until the lockdown measures are lifted. It remains to be seen how people will react when this happens. The impacts of the pandemic, in themselves, could spark more protests – particularly if a government is perceived to have handled the crisis poorly. The pandemic is also exposing the uneven access to healthcare across many countries, not to mention producing potentially devastating economic impacts.

There is also concern that emergency powers, such as those banning mass gatherings, could be extended beyond the end of the pandemic, and measures introduced by authorities to track the virus, such as mobile tracking apps and facial recognition technology, could be left in place once the pandemic has passed. In some cases, such as in Hong Kong, it seems likely that protests will restart in earnest when restrictions are lifted. In other instances, anxiety over mass gatherings may, in the short-term at least, dampen the power of protest movements. What is certain is that coronavirus has not merely shaped the global health landscape, nor merely suppressed hopes of economic growth, it has served to significantly affect a key tool of civil society – that of protest.

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signup buttonIn these turbulent times, we’re committed to telling expansive stories from across the globe, highlighting the everyday lives of normal but extraordinary people. Stay informed and engaged with Geographical.

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