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Protest Movements in the Time of COVID-19

2019 was dubbed the year of the protests, but 2020 will be defined by government-sanctioned limits to public gathering and stay at home orders. How can a world that is increasingly wary of state oppression protect and exercise its right to protest in the face of COVID-19?

In Short: The pandemic has severely impacted protest movements by essentially outlawing freedom of organization. This clears the way for authoritarian power-grabs, limits democracy when we need it most and forces us to look at alternative ways to show dissent.

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Why we protest: Protesting is the most visible way to express disapproval for undesirable actions, often political. Characterized by mass participation and a common goal, these social movements have the power to bring attention to important issues and sway public opinion or government policy.

The Global Protest wave of 2019 was characterised by protests across 6 continents, in liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes alike, bringing “a pronounced shift in the global landscape of dissent”.

Protests occurred due to a variety of reasons including:

  • Democratic reforms – Hong Kong became the face of the 2019 protest movements as millions took to the street to protest the passage of an extradition bill which undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy from China.
  • Regime change – The Hirak Movement in Algeria, motivated by opposition to sitting President Abdelaziz Bouteflika seeking a fifth term in office, led to a month of protests estimated to be over 3 million strong causing Bouteflika to resign.
  • Economic insecurity – In Chile, protests initiated by school children over the raise of metro fairs morphed into a nationwide movement over extreme inequality and high cost of living in the country.
  • Climate action – A global mobilization, led by climate activists and organized over social media resulted in a coordinated climate strike with over 6 million taking to the streets.
Global Climate Strike – Greta Thunberg/Twitter

A New Reality: The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed the dynamic of protest movements whose success often relies on mobilizing mass gatherings.

Public gathering bans were quickly enacted all around the world to limit the spreading of the virus. While the primary targets of these were events like music festivals and sports game audiences, they have also conveniently outlawed most public forms of dissent.

Authoritarian’s dream: Governments with authoritarian tendencies are already using the global pandemic as an opportunity to solidify their power.

  • In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán used the threat of the virus to convince his parliament to systematically destroy any semblance of democracy – giving him unlimited powers during a state of emergency with no time limits and suspending elections.
  • Meanwhile, long time Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni moved to ban opposition political rallies before the country had recorded a single official case of the virus.

Absent when most needed: The limitations on people’s ability to organize and protest comes at a time when almost every country in the world is facing a confluence of public health and economic emergencies.

This means that minority groups and those vulnerable to persecution face even more barriers than usual to having their voices heard.

In India, migrant workers in the big cities have taken to the streets en masse, despite the risk of contracting the virus, to bring attention to the fact that they are literally facing starvation.

  • It is commonplace for workers there to receive food and shelter from their employers who, in turn, have ceased to provide these services as businesses have shut down due to COVID-19.
  • This has pushed millions of these workers into homelessness as they cannot leave the cities to return to their homes due to strict lockdown measures.
  • To avoid arrest, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers joined together to walk out of New Dehli in an attempt to return to their rural homes.

New Protests for a New Time: There is no easy solution to the limitations which have placed on protest movements in the time of COVID-19. The sorts of million people strong demonstrations seen in 2019 are unlikely to be seen again for at least the next two years.

Improvisation is necessary: Despite regulations on gatherings, social movements around the world are innovating to get their voices heard.

  • Brazilians have started to bang pots and pans in the evening in protest of inaction by President Jair Bolsenaro on the Coronavirus outbreak.
  • Columbians who are facing food insecurity have been hanging red shirts from their windows.
  • Climate activists have encouraged people to continue their Friday school strikes for climate online using #ClimateStrikeOnline.
  • Finally, in Israel, a massive gathering was held with people standing two metres apart to protest President Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Bottom Line: Protests are essential to a healthy democracy but their power often lies in the ability to gain visibility through mass mobilization.

In the time of Coronavirus, gaining attention for social movements will be dependent on three main factors, being:

  • Unique – Protests that capture attention are the most successful, innovation can lead to massive coverage as seen by the Israeli social distance protest whose pictures were amplified around the world.
  • Targeted – A successful protest is often built around simple ideas that are easily understood. To maintain public attention, protests must make sure their message is clear and noble.
  • Well-Organized – To those who can access it, many tools necessary to mobilize people and organize a protest are available online. Social media can be used to bring awareness, while apps such as discord allow anonymity and tools such as the ability to vote on actions.