Covid-19's lingering side effect - social unrest

It's not just protests against lockdowns. Covid-19 has rekindled older divisions, resentments and inequities across the world.

Protesters scuffling with police in Leipzig on Nov 7 at a rally against the German government's coronavirus restrictions. The number of uprisings globally has been increasing by an average of 11.5 per cent a year since 2009. PHOTO: REUTERS
Protesters scuffling with police in Leipzig on Nov 7 at a rally against the German government's coronavirus restrictions. The number of uprisings globally has been increasing by an average of 11.5 per cent a year since 2009. PHOTO: REUTERS

"So when our Sickness, and our Poverty had greater wants than we could well supply; Strict Orders did but more enrage our grief, And hinder in accomplishing relief."

That's how British poet George Wither explained a spreading rebellion against social distancing rules.

Seeing quarantines and lockdowns as unfair and tyrannical punishments, people were taking to the streets. The year was 1625, the place was London, the disease was plague. On Nov 7, the same psychology brought some 20,000 people out on the streets of Leipzig. About 90 per cent of the marchers refused to wear masks, according to police estimates.

They represented a motley spectrum of conspiracy theorists and freedom lovers, of right-wing extremists and those simply nostalgic for East Germany's peaceful revolution 31 years ago.

And this was only the latest of many such demonstrations this year, in Germany and dozens of other countries.

People have marched, rioted or protested from Trafalgar Square to the Michigan Statehouse, sometimes armed with guns.

Different sorts of protests

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has counted more than 30 major protests in 26 countries between March and last month just against coronavirus pandemic restrictions.

But the protests in Leipzig or Michigan, Britain or Australia, represent only one category of unrest, reckon Carnegie's Thomas Carothers and Benjamin Press. These rallies vent the frustrations of relatively well-off people living in prosperous and functional democracies.

In a different category, there are the many protests against governments or leaders suspected of being corrupt (Bulgaria, say), incompetent (Brazil) or demagogic, illiberal and even undemocratic.

Israelis, for example, protested against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after he shut down courts, adjourned Parliament and demanded digital surveillance, all in the name of fighting the pandemic.

Serbians took to the streets against their president, Mr Aleksandar Vucic. He had lifted a lockdown to allow an election that was in his interest but ultimately contributed to a resurgence of the virus. He then imposed a second lockdown, which Serbs interpreted as a crackdown on dissent.

A third type of protest is more common in poor countries. It mobilises people not so much because they worry about the virus or democracy but because they fear for their livelihoods.

In Malawi, street vendors have marched with signs saying "We'd rather die of corona than of hunger". The citizens of Ecuador have rioted against coronavirus policies that threaten to impoverish them, including the shutdown of state-owned companies and salary cuts.

And then there are the many protests that ostensibly have little to do with Covid-19 but probably became more urgent or bitter in the pandemic's context.

Black Lives Matter is an uprising against racial injustice that restarted in the United States after the death of Mr George Floyd. It then spread to at least 16 other countries, from France and Britain to Brazil and South Africa.

In history books, the iconography of mask-clad crowds will forever invite associations with the outbreak.

In April, I predicted that "this pandemic will lead to social revolutions". What we've seen so far is only the start.

Age of mass protests

Despite new hopes for a vaccine, Covid-19 will now enter its deadliest phase in many regions entering winter. Even after we defeat the virus, many of its effects will linger for years. Like turpentine on flames, Covid-19 has rekindled older divisions, resentments and inequities across the world.

In the US, black Americans suffer disproportionately from police brutality but also from the coronavirus - now these traumas merge. And everywhere, the poor fare worse than the rich.

In March, still early in the pandemic, think-tankers were already noticing that we were entering an "age of mass protests" - the number of uprisings globally has been increasing by an average of 11.5 per cent a year since 2009.

Covid-19, like so many other plagues before, will now act as the fire accelerant.

Some upheavals will topple governments, others will be repressed. Some will flare up soon, others will smoulder for years.

In 1381, the rural poor of England rose up in the so-called Peasants' Revolt, killing, looting and burning. They did so because their lives had become unlivable since the Black Death first came ashore 33 years earlier.

And the elites had done nothing in that time to make things better.

BLOOMBERG

  • Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 18, 2020, with the headline 'Covid-19's lingering side effect - social unrest'. Print Edition | Subscribe