‘This Government is Lucky’: Coronavirus Quiets Global Protest Movements


HONG KONG — Tear gas no longer chokes Hong Kong’s skyscrapers, while protesters’ tents in downtown Beirut have been dismantled. In Delhi, the odd plastic fork and tattered blanket are all that remain of the sit-in that once throttled one of the city’s busiest highways.

Around the globe, the coronavirus pandemic has stilled the anti-establishment protests that erupted last year, bringing months of marches, rallies and riots to a sudden halt. Now, like everything else in the world, the protests face the unanswerable question of what happens next.

How long the pandemic lasts, and how governments and activists respond, will dictate whether the interruption represents a fleeting pause, a moment of metamorphosis, or an unceremonious end for some of the most widespread mass mobilizations in recent history.

The challenges are apparent. Millions of protesters are hunkered down at home, hemmed in by sweeping quarantines and fears for their own health. The daily burden of acquiring face masks or food overshadows debates about corruption and abuse of power.

Almost every government has restricted mass gatherings, ostensibly protecting public health but potentially also constraining future mobilization. Some have used the outbreak to consolidate power or arrest opponents.

But the pandemic’s economic toll, as well as the crises of trust it has inspired in many governments, could fuel fresh outrage. Already, people from Washington State to Peru to Paris have defied lockdown measures they say threaten their jobs, housing and food supplies.

Protesters have also found new ways to express their discontent. Chilean activists have projected images of crowds onto empty streets. In Hong Kong, a union of medical workers, born out of the pro-democracy protests, went on strike to criticize the government’s outbreak response. Worldwide, people have organized online workshops, banged pots and pans and organized socially-distanced rallies.

“It is a rest time, but it’s definitely not the end of the movement,” said Isaac Cheng, a student leader of Demosisto, a prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy group.

The Hong Kong protests were among the first to feel the chilling effects of the virus.

The protests began in June, to oppose a bill that would have allowed extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China. They soon spiraled into some of the largest in Hong Kong’s history, with millions marching to denounce police brutality and Beijing’s growing influence over the city.

But in January, as news spread of a mysterious virus in China, many grew leery of crowds. The freeze became official in March, when officials banned public gatherings of more than four people. Since then, police have arrested attendees of sporadic protests.

“What can we do?” said Max Chung, an activist who was arrested last July after organizing a protest of hundreds of thousands of people. “When the time is right, of course I will organize another protest. But it is impossible right now.”

A combination of top-down mandates and grass-roots hesitation has paralyzed protests elsewhere.

In Algeria, twice-weekly street protests that roiled the country for more than a year dried up in March, as protesters agreed to focus on fighting the virus — a decision solidified by the country’s new ban on public demonstrations.

As awareness of the virus spread in Beirut, protesters at first donned masks to chant against corruption and religious sectarianism. But they dispersed in the face of a nationwide lockdown, and last month, security forces dismantled encampments where protesters had slept, held teach-ins and danced to revolutionary anthems.

Attempts to defy the restrictions have met backlash from not only the government but also allies. After opponents of an anti-Muslim law in India said they would continue protesting during lockdown, even supporters criticized them as reckless.

The restrictions on gatherings are not limited to countries that had been fending off mass movements, said Clément Voule, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association.

“I haven’t heard of any countries currently where people are able to exercise fully these rights,” he said.

While caution is necessary, protesters’ natural fear of the virus could lead them to accept or even embrace restrictions with far-reaching consequences, he said.

As streets and public squares have emptied, governments have already begun reintroducing some of the very measures that set off previous protests.

Ecuador had burst into violence in October, when the president, Lenín Moreno, announced the elimination of a longstanding fuel subsidy. At least ten people died, and Mr. Moreno backtracked. But on Monday, the country’s energy minister renewed a call to revoke it.

In Hong Kong, the police on Saturday abruptly arrested 15 prominent pro-democracy activists — the biggest roundup of opposition leaders in recent memory. The arrests followed several weeks of unusually aggressive rhetoric from the Chinese Communist Party asserting its control over Hong Kong, a semiautonomous territory with its own constitution.

Some Hong Kongers have been particularly concerned by renewed calls from Beijing for the city to enact anti-treason and subversion laws. A previous push to do so in 2003 failed after mass protests.

“This is the government’s plan: to make people afraid, and when the time comes that the movement should be reigniting, there will be less and less people coming out,” said Mr. Cheng, the student activist.

Samia Khan, an activist in India, said she had already seen fractures in the broad coalitions that supported protests there. Hundreds of thousands of Indians, of all religions, had rallied against a law that blatantly discriminated against Muslims.

But during the outbreak, tensions between Muslims and Hindus have risen, stoked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. Officials have blamed an outbreak at a Delhi mosque for spreading the coronavirus in the country, and some have suggested that Muslims intentionally transmitted the virus.

“This government is lucky,” said Ms. Khan, who helped organize a sit-in that blocked a main Delhi highway. “It has shut down the biggest challenge it faced since it was elected, by using the excuse of a pandemic.”

But aggressive government restrictions bring their own risks — namely, giving new life to existing grievances and creating new ones.

Already, thousands of people around the world have defied lockdown orders to protest their governments’ responses.

Violent clashes erupted in the low-income, immigrant-heavy suburbs of Paris this week, as residents denounced what they called heavy-handed, racially biased enforcement of France’s lockdown. Hundreds of low-income Peruvians tried to leave Lima on Monday for their rural hometowns, and were tear gassed by police.

Iraqis have returned to the streets to decry the shortage of jobs and income that has been exacerbated by stay-at-home orders. Some working-class protesters whose wages have disappeared returned to crowd the streets over the last week in one Lebanese city, while protesters demonstrated in their cars and on foot in multiple cities across the country.

Across the United States, conservative activists, encouraged by President Trump, have rallied against lockdown orders, despite pleas from public health experts and medical workers.

Others have found creative new ways to protest. In Colombia, where large strikes last year demanded higher wages and more public funding, poorer families have hung red T-shirts and rags in their windows to signal they need food and as a symbol of protest. In Hong Kong, the video game Animal Crossing, which allows players to meet up with friends, has become the latest protest front, as homebound teenagers share virtual slogans.

Crowds in Israel and Poland have denounced corruption and abortion restrictions while following social distancing guidelines by standing carefully spaced, several feet apart.

Dominga Sotomayor, a director from Santiago, Chile, has organized a group that broadcasts protest-related films and town hall-style meetings on social media to try to sustain the momentum of the unrest that broke out there in October over a proposed subway fare increase.

“The pandemic has been a difficult period for Chile, because there’s a real sense of the movement’s fragility. So we have had to take it online,” she said.

Even if some of the new, pandemic-inspired protests are not directly related to previous ones, they may energize those movements in the future. In particular, an extended global recession, on top of existing anger, could propel such protests.

China has offered a preview of the economic discontent the pandemic may breed after lockdowns lift: Though the central government quickly stifles any unrest, social media reports have shown workers demanding rent reductions and other relief.

“Governance failure on top of an economic crisis — my goodness,” said Thomas Carothers, a democracy expert who oversees a global protest tracker at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank. “If you’re a power holder, tough times are coming.”

In Hong Kong, the wariness about crowds that pervaded the city has started to fade, as new infections have hovered in the single digits for more than a week.

Preparations for new protests are already underway. A group that organized many of last year’s rallies in Hong Kong said on Sunday that it was seeking police permission to hold a July 1 march.

Ventus Lau, another march organizer, said protesters were using the unexpected reprieve to recharge and strategize. Weeks of being cooped up at home, he added, had also left many eager for action.

“In Hong Kong, I feel more people are already trying to get out of their homes than before,” he said.

Vivian Wang reported from Hong Kong, Maria Abi-Habib from Los Angeles, and Vivian Yee from Beirut, Lebanon; Reporting was contributed by Hwaida Saad in Beirut; Sameer Yasir in Delhi; John Bartlett in Santiago, Chile; Julie Turkewitz in Bogotá, Colombia; José María León Cabrera in Quito, Ecuador; María Silvia Trigo in Tarija, Bolivia; Declan Walsh in Cairo, Egypt; and Alissa Rubin in Baghdad, Iraq.





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