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Social unrest is the inevitable legacy of the COVID pandemic

“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 the 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, and the disease was plague.

The same psychology brought some 20,000 people out on the streets of Leipzig last Saturday. Flouting all rules, about 90% 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. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has counted more than 30 major protests in 26 countries between March and October just against coronavirus restrictions.

But the protests in Leipzig or Michigan, Britain or Australia, only represent 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, 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 mobilizes people not so much because they worry about the virus or democracy but because they fear for their livelihood. 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 re-started in the US after the murder of 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. 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% 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 smolder 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.


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