Coronavirus has crippled global protest movements

The streets of Algiers were empty after the government banned protests in coronavirus response.
The streets of Algiers were empty after the government banned protests in coronavirus response.
Image: Reuters/Ramzi Boudina
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Algeria’s protest movement seemed unstoppable.

After forcing the country’s president of 20 years to step down last year—and the arrest of dozens of the country’s leaders—the protesters continued into 2020, demanding a total upheaval of the political system.

Then came the novel coronavirus, and the sudden end to 56 consecutive weeks of protests. On March 17, the country’s new president banned protests for more than a year under the pretext of stopping the spread of the virus. So far, protesters seemed to have acquiesced to the demand, with the streets of Algiers reportedly empty.

Covid-19 has had this kind of chilling effect on opposition movements everywhere. The world is now a long way from 2019, which was dubbed the “year of street protest.”

“No one jumps on the barricades when they think the barricade might have a virus on it,” said Richard Gowan, the UN director at the International Crisis Group. “[Coronavirus is] a deterrent to protest and it may be giving some pretty authoritarian leaders a bit of respite in this context.”

In Hong Kong, where large-scale protests raged for months last year, a small protest this week was swiftly dispersed by police citing a ban on gatherings of more than four people. In Russia, as president Vladimir Putin planned to hold a national vote on whether he could extend his term limits as far as 2036, the often-boisterous opposition movement called off protests in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. (The virus later forced Putin himself to postpone the poll.)

In total, there were 452 protests worldwide last week—many of which took place on balconies—down from 1,519 in the first week of March, according to data from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). There were about 2,000 global protests in the first week of November last year.

“There were so many countries at the end of last year that were going through really serious civil uprisings,” said Akshaya Kumar, director of crisis advocacy at Human Rights Watch. “It was probably one of the bright spots of 2019 and the future we have to look forward to in 2020 is everyone being forced to stay home and maybe accepting that’s the right thing for them at the moment.”

In some places, being unable to protest can endanger people’s lives. South Africans have held mass protests against gender-based violence in the past year, but the country’s strict lockdown has prevented women from accessing shelters, Kumar said. “Women are going to be trapped in spaces which aren’t safe for them,” she said. “This was the subject of widespread protests in South Africa and now people won’t be able to do anything if the situation gets worse.”

The luxury of staying home

In richer countries, where governments can support people unable to work, it’s unlikely protesters will place themselves and others in harm’s way any time soon. As they take center stage at a time of crisis, leaders of the world’s 10 biggest democracies have seen their approval ratings climb by an average of nine points, according to pollster Morning Consult. Most strikingly, British prime minister Boris Johnson received a 25-point spike and US president Donald Trump a 5-point bump, despite both governments’ responses copping criticism from experts.

But in the developing world the divide between health and safety isn’t so clearcut. In India, thousands of migrant laborers took to the streets to tell authorities they hadn’t eaten for days, after a government order to stay home left them unable to work.

“We shouldn’t underestimate how desperate things are in certain settings. There are large parts of Subsaharan Africa where you have big populations who are day laborers and when the economic effects hit, their safety net is likely to disappear,” Gowan said. “In Venezuela, there’s a similar case where for years people have been emphasizing that the health sector is incapacitated. Then, the one thing that was propping up the government was oil revenues and lo and behold the oil price collapses.”

The protests that did take place last week were overwhelmingly related to coronavirus, according to ACLED data. The demands varied, however. Some demonstrators called to be allowed to work so they can survive, while others demanded their governments do more to tackle the virus.

Online or on the balcony

While street protests are tricky, people have been finding other ways to voice discontent.

In mid-March, millions of Brazilians banged pots and pans on their balconies to protest president Jair Bolsonaro’s dismissive response to the virus. In Israel, nearly 600,000 people tuned into a virtual protest on Facebook Live against prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s effort to close parliament, an apparent attempt to dissuade opposition leader Benny Gantz from forming a coalition. Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg moved her weekly school strike online, with the hashtag #digitalstrike.

But these are trifling compared to the headaches caused by street protests. By taking to the streets, “you really disrupt daily life and the routines of people and…really build up pressure to push demands you have against the government,” said Sebastian Hellmeier, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Varieties of Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenburg.

The large online demonstrations so far appear to have had little impact. Bolsonaro’s controversial response to Covid-19 continues. Twitter was forced to delete two of his tweets this week for spreading misinformation or advocating dangerous policies in response to the virus. Meanwhile, Gantz and Netanyahu reportedly expect to have a coalition government in place next week.

The closest internet demonstrations could get to the disruption a street protest would be jamming a government website through a denial of service attack. But that’s unlikely to be a good strategy in nervous times. “Bringing down websites would be an amazingly good way to lose public support if it actually appeared to be putting people in danger,” Gowan said.

Moving protests online also limits those who can participate. “There’s just a huge issue with access to the internet and the digital divide—questions about who’s able to get online and the bandwidth limitations for people based on their economic situation,” Kumar said. “So it’s certainly not as open a space as simply participating in a street protest which is available to people regardless of their socioeconomic status.” She points to areas like the disputed Kashmir region between India and Pakistan, where the Indian government shut down the internet for months last year before reopening it for just a few hundred sites in January. Kashmir’s millions of residents only have access to 2G mobile connections, which barely enables email access.

The aftermath

When public anger starts to swell more broadly, states’ new emergency powers may make it hard for protesters to return to the streets, even after the health crisis subsides. The precedent of the Ebola crisis in West Africa shows that, even once the pandemic clears, undemocratic countries aren’t often keen to hand back power, Gowan said.

“Often the only functional bits of the state are the security services—the police and the army. Often for good reasons they end up being drafted in to support public health, but that also means you’re handing decision-making about how you manage the ongoing crisis to securocrats whose instinct is always going to be to say, ‘No, we still can’t risk a protest,'” he said. “That’s where you can get friction and bloodshed, where the population is locked down and angry, and the government attempts to extend the state of emergence indefinitely.”

On top of the new legal powers, many leaders have also been trying out controversial new technology to keep people from spreading the virus. Israel is using counterterrorism technology to monitor the phones of people suspected of catching the virus. Iran reportedly tricked millions of people into downloading an app that could supposedly diagnose coronavirus, but in fact is being used to track them. Russia is using the virus as a test case for its nascent facial recognition technology. And China has escalated its mass surveillance infrastructure. The country’s facial recognition cameras can reportedly now identify people wearing masks.

Once the crisis calms down, it’s unlikely those governments will just stop using that technology. “That has huge implications for people who might want to meet and organize for dissent in civil society,” Kumar said.

Dan Kopf contributed to this story.