While, initially, lockdowns in countries around the world had a notable dampening effect on the frequency of civil unrest, as the Covid-19 pandemic has persisted this effect has subsided. MARKUS KORHONEN writes that the negative economic and social impacts of the pandemic have garnered increasing antipathy among citizens, prompting renewed anti-government demonstrations in many parts of the world.
On 11 March 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19 to be a pandemic – the first time the designation has been used for a coronavirus – effectively signalling that the spread of the disease could not be contained. The WHO’s Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called on countries to take a “whole-of-government, whole-of-society approach” to prevent infections and allow for an effective response to save lives. For many governments, this meant the adoption of a range of restrictive measures: limits on travel, commerce and gatherings, the imposition of curfews, and calls for citizens to remain sequestered in their homes.
Unsurprisingly, the onset of government-imposed lockdowns in mid-to-late March coincided with a reduction in protest frequency. S-RM recorded 92 and 90 high-profile civil unrest incidents in March and April respectively, compared to 177 in February – a drop of almost 50%. Compliance with regulations, as well as a fear of the virus likely contributed to diminished enthusiasm for joining large crowds, as did some authorities’ overenthusiasm for enforcing restrictions. But as the economic costs of the pandemic became more apparent, the considerations discouraging protest action became less pressing.
The motivations for Covid-19-related protests have varied widely, from those concerned about the impact of restrictions on their livelihoods, to those who proclaim the entire pandemic to be a hoax. While the latter group’s position is easily dismissed as fantasy in light of the scientific evidence, the economic damage wrought by the pandemic and its related restrictions is very real.
COUNTING THE COST
The pandemic has decimated the global economy: by September, 34 million jobs were lost in Latin America alone, and one in four adults in the US reported they were having difficulties in paying their bills. In the UK, the impact on jobs hit record highs, with 233,909 people made redundant and 9.6 million furloughed by November. The World Bank has forecast a 5.2% contraction in global GDP for 2020, which would signal the deepest global recession in decades.
Against this backdrop, policymakers have struggled to find a suitable balance between imposing severe measures to limit the spread of the disease while at the same time containing the economic damage those restrictions inevitably cause. Globally, the damage is unevenly distributed. Larger economies have deeper pockets and more tools at their disposal to protect businesses and workers than emerging and developing economies do. For many countries in the latter group, efforts to contain the pandemic are likely to cause decades-long setbacks in terms of economic growth and productivity. Little surprise then, that ongoing restrictions have prompted (sometimes violent) protests in poorer countries including Guinea, Guatemala, Nepal and Senegal. But protests against Covid-19 restrictions have also turned violent in wealthier countries such as Germany, Spain, Australia and Italy. Despite even relatively generous government interventions in some countries to cushion the economic impacts the pandemic – the European Union has, for instance, agreed on a total support package worth EUR 2,364.3 billion for member states – the severe drop in demand in sectors such as tourism, hospitality and travel has led to widespread job cuts and bankruptcies.
S-RM recorded 92 and 90 high-profile civil unrest incidents in March and April respectively, compared to 177 in February – a drop of almost 50%.
Major civil unrest incidents January - november 2020
UNREST AD INFINITUM?
Since the lull in March and April, protest frequency globally has seen a notable increase. While the drivers of the protests in 2020 have varied – for instance, the Black Lives Matter protests that began in late May were entirely unrelated to Covid-19 – they nonetheless take place in the broader context of the enduring pandemic. The large numbers of protests through November demonstrate a level of willingness to ignore, in many instances, ongoing government mandates restricting large public gatherings. Potential second or third waves of infections notwithstanding, the underlying economic and social challenges precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic are likely to endure. While the expected rollout of immunisation programmes into 2021 may limit the spread and severity of the disease, economic recovery will take much longer. Eventually pandemic-related restrictions will lift, but we foresee that pandemic-related economic turmoil will continue to prompt civil unrest through the coming year.
Much remains unknown, including whether immunisation will eradicate Covid-19 entirely, and what the final cost – both human and economic – of the pandemic will be, but already the political impacts are beginning to show. Citizens and opposition groups are questioning the efficacy of government efforts in several countries. Measures have been varyingly criticised as insufficient, misdirected, overzealous or belated in countries like the UK, South Africa and the US. In contrast, others such as the Jacinda Ardern-led Labour government in New Zealand have received a boost in support following what many have regarded as a well-managed response. Other questions in politics remain extant – the Trump administration’s pandemic response was just one of many deciding factors in the November US presidential election, for instance – but the ways in which governments dealt with Covid-19 is likely to play some role in political choices and behaviour through 2021, if not longer.