How has Covid-19 affected demonstrations against the state?

20th May 2020

Lockdowns in place due to Covid-19 have begun easing in most countries and with it the chance for people to get outside and start to travel again. While there has been an attempt for governments to get countries back to normal, this has had the side-effect of a rise in demonstrations and protesting after a period of prolonged quiet. However, with social distancing rules still in place, as well as a ban on mass gatherings, demonstrators are technically breaking the law just by meeting, even if it is peacefully, with repercussions from law enforcement. As people become increasingly tired and confused as to how to carry on with the social restrictions this could lead to more civil unrest.

COVID-19 had stopped all physical demonstrations and mass protests against the state to all but online blogging. Forcing people to stay in their homes had the effect of stopping people’s ability to demonstrate in public. However, now the restrictions have been lifted in the UK, London has already seen its first demonstration. Piers Corbyn, brother of Jeremy, was arrested among several others at a protest in Hyde Park on Saturday 16th May. Around 50 people gathered to protest against the lockdown and denouncing social distancing as a measure of “tyranny”. Slogans of “anti-vax deserves a voice” were heard in reference to the inevitable mass roll-out of COVID-19 vaccinations, as well as complaints about the deployment of 5G masts being one of the main causes of COVID-19. Mr Corbyn called the pandemic ‘a pack of lies to brainwash you and keep you in order”, a sentiment echoed by the protestors. One protestor said he “never thought I’d see in my generation the suppressing of civil rights” over a “fake virus”. 1

While the demonstration was peaceful it was against social distancing laws currently in place and so had to be dispersed by Police. Justifiably so as research in the US suggests protest gatherings during COVID-19 have helped spread the virus in their country.2 This has put pressure on police officers who are having to arrest protestors and make on-the-spot fines. Personal protective equipment now has to include a face mask for front line workers, but this offers little protection against a protestor determined at physical altercation with a Police Officer. However, very few officers were seen wearing a mask or even to be social distancing from colleagues in Hyde Park. Officers can be seen to be wearing gloves, but it begs the question how can Police Officers effectively social distance while making arrests or dispersing crowds?

As many of the protestors do not believe the virus is real and others believing that the worst has passed, many do not feel the need to social distance. Health psychologist Susan Michie believes the government is giving out mixed messages.3 A message that people should stay at home but non-essential workers should now be going back to work is making people feel confused, unjustifiably contained or manipulated, and will only get stronger the longer it continues. If this leads to people going out unnecessarily, unsure as what the rules are, they then run the risk of fines or arrests by the Police, which will lead to an escalation and resentment towards the establishment.

European countries have now relaxed restrictions to the point that people can go to bars, restaurants, and hairdressers. However, ‘lockdown fatigue’ has been growing across Europe as people get frustrated with being forced to stay in their homes over the past six weeks. On Saturday 16th May more demonstrations in Germany across cities including Berlin, Munich and Stuttgart occurred. Five thousand people gathered in Stuttgart and had to be directed to different locations by the Police to enforce some form of social distancing. However, although the protests were mostly peaceful, social distancing was mostly non-existent at these rallies among both protestors and Police alike.

The German newspaper Bild reported that the protests had attracted “a mix of right and left extremes, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaccine and corona-weary people”. Protestors were angry at “what they see as undemocratic government policies, restrictions on civil liberties and the belief that some measures, such as the wearing of face masks were not rooted in scientific evidence”. 4

The President of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency believes the demonstrations are being used: “We see a trend that extremists, especially right-wing extremists, are exploiting the demonstration”. Hard-line protestors are using the nationwide anti-lockdown sentiment to stir up anti-democratic feeling. Germany’s Federal Criminal Police has said that groups “are trying to instrumentalise the situation for propaganda purposes”. The German government had previously voiced concerns over the radicalisation of anti-COVID-19 measures.5

Switzerland has seen rallies dispersed by Police in Bern, Zurich and Basel. Poland has also seen protestors taking to the streets demanding that their government act faster to re-open the economy, allowing businesses to start work again. The UK currently has the highest amount of deaths linked to COVID-19 in Europe and second only to the US in the world. Many restrictions remain in place but as they start to ease will Saturday 16th May demonstrations be the start of further protests as ‘lockdown fatigue’ takes its toll and the effects of high levels of unemployment and economic hardship begin to emerge.6

In Hong Kong, a Chinese province seemingly at war on the streets a few months ago has seen the street protests stopped due to the COVID-19 lockdown. However, it is believed the Chinese state has used the distraction of the pandemic to detain 15 pro-democracy leaders for their part in last year’s protests.7 Anti-government feelings have remained strong with hospital workers going on strike to put pressure on the government to close borders with China. Ostensibly to improve safety for key workers and reduce infection rates, this has been thought of as a political stunt by the unions. This pandemic has seen the increase in independent workers unions being formed as the public look for ways to exert their voice as a community over their ruling elite. Hong Kong has particularly looked at this as a way of channelling the mass solidarity movement and to combat the eroding of its democracy.8

This can be seen with some success as the consistent pressure put on Governor Carrie Lam led her to close down ports and quarantine mainland arrivals at the beginning of this pandemic. Daily criticism of the Governors dealing of the COVID-19 pandemic has led the government to be cautious. However, with China seeking to clamp down on the perpetrators of last year’s protests and the effects of lockdown gathering more anti-government resentment, the fuel for another ‘summer of discontent’ is already there as soon as lockdown restrictions are lifted.

Canada has seen increasingly vehement protests building up since late April in Vancouver and Toronto. “Globalist” organisations have long been a target but the COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to novel ways of attacking these bodies. Unchecked conspiracy theories are being used by “savvy” dissenters to fuel anger in an anxious and frustrated public. Protests have become common mainly due to these conspiracy theories, combined with anti-China sentiment and a feeling of white supremacy amongst the far-right. The Canadian Chief Public Health Officer is Hong Kong-born and of Chinese descent. She has become increasingly made the target for far-right activists as an easily identifiable enemy, and part of a “silent invasion” of the Chinese on western society, in an attempt to rouse up racial hatred.9

So far the UK government has been able to enforce a nationwide lockdown that has been suggested as partly achievable by consistently using guilt as a way of controlling people.10 People have felt obligated to stay at home through a fear campaign that people venturing out would end up inadvertently killing others through the spread of the virus. Some individuals have taken this as an over-exaggeration and extension of an oppressive state framework that looks to control civil liberties. Even though the lockdown has stopped mass gatherings people have still had the ability to voice their disapproval at the government online as well as plan and organise events as yet unknown to the authorities. Whether this is mostly aimed at the government’s handling of this pandemic or other anti-state orientated resentment.

Fully aware of public opinion, Extinction Rebellion protests have come to a halt after a backlash last year from the public when protests affected commuters going to work.11 They had planned a ‘socially-distanced’ bicycle protest to celebrate the lack of cars on the road in Bristol on Sunday 17th May but cancelled it due to complaints from supporters.12 Currently, the organisation is mostly making webinars and digital assemblies as a way of getting its message across during lockdown.13 Some protestors demonstrating against the HS2 high-speed rail link have spent the lockdown in trees in defiance of ‘stay at home’ orders, though the protestors claim to actually be social distancing in the trees. One protestor has said: “People’s democratic right to protest and have their say has been taken away at this time”, while another has voiced her confusion at government policy saying that “our nurses and doctors are without PPE, yet these workers can continue because the government deems them key workers”. 14 HS2 protests have since increased since the lockdown restrictions have been eased.

The lockdown has forced many to increase their work and social hours onto computers at home. As a result, more people are accessing social media and online news updates. Greta Thunberg, the 17-year-old Swedish activist who inspired the Friday youth protest group has stayed at home and tweeted to her followers to “take it online” during lockdown, in reference to climate protests.15 The 50th Annual Earth Day planned protests had to be moved online whereas a year ago there were a million youth activists on the streets protesting against climate change. However, Dana Fisher, Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland who specialises in activism, has said that this is not what the groups want: “Twitter hashtags are far less visible than huge crowds on streets”. One of the activists organising the Fridays for Futures online protest boards said: “Intersecting crises will be a feature of our time”; referencing the new method of activists prepared to piggyback each other’s causes for maximum publicity and effect.

An article on ‘Digital and Online Activism’ states that: “Increasing accessibility and the ability to communicate with thousands of citizens quickly has made the internet a tool of choice for individuals or organisations looking to spread a social message far and wide”.16 It goes on to state that online activity was limited and should always “be coupled with offline activity in order to have greater impact”.

Although there have been isolated incidents of protests, governments across Europe that have eased their lockdowns may well have averted a lot of growing antagonism before it boiled over into widespread civil unrest. While prolonged protests such as in Hong Kong, ongoing before COVID-19 restrictions, have seen a period of quiet, it is highly likely these will return to a more obvious visual format. Longing running resentment fuelled by other political motivators will not have disappeared just due to this pandemic causing a temporary reduction in people’s movements. Protestors have still been able to socialise, plan and organise events online.

With the majority of people understanding of the need to social distance, they have abided by government restriction lockdowns for now, however, this can only be tolerated so long, as life without the social norms becomes less bearable. Most resentment now seems to reside on the looming economic crisis facing many countries. Plans to deal with this crisis through economic stimulus packages, as well as specifically the language used by governments, will be key in keeping public discontent to a minimum. In the UK, as people’s focus moves from one of personal safety towards going back to work and socialising, questions will be asked of the UK government’s handling of COVID-19. This may show itself through more demonstrations locally, as an emotionally charged population want to vent their frustrations. Protest groups also run the risk of being hijacked by hardliners willing to use the new crisis for their own agendas. If this happens, should as a second spike in COVID-19 cases occur, resulting in a new lockdown, then clashes between protestors and law enforcement will become more so likely.