How do you protest in the era of the coronavirus?
In Russia, “virtual protesters” have clustered outside government buildings, at a safe social distance, and they post messages online demanding more financial assistance from authorities.
Young climate change activists have heeded the call by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, the founder of the global school strike movement, to avoid big protests to help contain the novel coronavirus.
“We have to adapt. That is what you have to do in a crisis,” she told activists last month. She encouraged her followers to move their climate action protests online and use the hashtag #DigitalStrike.
2019 was a revolutionary year, with 12 months of protests and mass mobilizations from Hong Kong to Bolivia, and from France to Lebanon, rocking political establishments as they unfolded.
Few parts of the world were unaffected.
In Russia's capital, Moscow, protesters were outraged by rigged elections. In Britain, people rallied against Brexit. Serbia, Ukraine, Albania and the central European states all experienced major demonstrations. Separatists battled police in the restive region of Catalonia. Dissent in the Middle East prompted talk of a new Arab Spring. In Sudan, President Omar al-Bashir was overthrown by the military following months of mass protests.
In the Americas, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela all experienced popular unrest.
But 2020 has become the year of house confinement.
Protesters who want to keep within lockdown rules — either out of a sense of social responsibility or fear of punishment — must navigate social distancing and travel restrictions to make their voices heard. Many fear contracting the potentially deadly coronavirus if they congregate.
Many movements are determined not to be silenced, although they acknowledge they can’t be as effective now as they were last year.
“It is quite challenging to continue striking and organizing, if people cannot meet physically,” climate action activist Linus Steinmetz told German broadcasters.
As in other European countries, climate change activists in Germany have gone digital, blanketing the internet and social media with demands for deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, sometimes focusing on government institutions with tweets. German branches have launched a YouTube learning module for children not attending school.
“We’re trying to figure things out now,” Luisa Neubauer, a German activist, told Yale e360, an American online environment magazine. “Beating the coronavirus is the first thing we have to do, but the fight to save the climate can’t stop. It will continue in other ways and when this crisis is over, the climate crisis will look different. We may even have a better chance. We know that political will, when it is there, can move mountains. We are experiencing this right now in the corona crisis.”
Other protest movements are also exploring alternate ways to mobilize support and promote their causes — as well as to oppose government measures.
In Poland, women activists last week used their cars to defy Poland's lockdown and blocked the main roundabouts in the country’s capital, protesting against legislation to tighten Poland’s abortion laws, which are already among the most restrictive in Europe.
Others, dressed head to toe in black, weaved through streets on bicycles, maintaining distance but provoking police to warn that assembling was illegal and in breach of coronavirus restrictions. Women protesters also hung banners from balconies. Another protest this week saw women — wearing face masks — lining up 2 meters apart outside government buildings, complaining that the right-wing populist government was trying to exploit the pandemic to get the legislation passed.
The country’s lower house of parliament delayed the vote and asked a parliamentary commission to consider the amended abortion restrictions to give more time for consultation. Marta Gorczynska, a human rights lawyer, said if there had not been a lockdown, more women would have taken to the streets.
“We were using other tools, especially online ones,” she said.
This week in Beirut, hundreds of Lebanese demonstrators used the Poles’ model, reclaiming streets emptied by the coronavirus lockdown. They stayed in their cars to observe social distancing rules, honking horns and waving Lebanese flags out of their car windows, hoping to revive a cross-sectarian protest movement that flared in October but was unable to push through the radical reforms demonstrators want.
“It's so good to be back. There's no better feeling,” protester Hassan Hussein Ali, 22, told AFP. “Corona has killed everything, but it hasn't stopped the corruption of our politicians, so it will not stop us either.”
In neighboring Israel, this week also saw anti-government protests. In Tel Aviv, a few thousand gathered to express their disapproval of a new unity government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The protest was given the go-ahead by authorities with organizers promising that attendees would observe social distancing restrictions and wear face masks. They marked up a square for the protest to ensure physical distancing rules were followed.
Police said in a statement, “Protests are regarded as an essential right that should be reserved for every citizen, as long as all restrictions and instructions are obeyed.”
But in Jerusalem, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox adherents gathered to protest the lockdown of Mea Shearim, one of the oldest Jewish neighborhoods in the city, populated by Haredi Jews. The protesters ignored social distancing regulations and clashed with police.
With anger and frustration simmering in many countries in Europe and the Middle East, and people tiring of state-ordered lockdowns, authorities worry the overall interruption in physical political protest will amount to a lull before the storm. Poverty, economic hardship and bankruptcy in many cases are compounding pre-coronavirus grievances.
In France, police fear a coming explosion of violence in the troubled working-class suburbs of Paris following several nights of small-scale rioting against police enforcement of the lockdown.
The leader of France’s largest police union said Wednesday that he was worried the country could explode in violence.
“It may get very difficult,” said Yves Lefebvre, head of the SGP Unite police union. “If tomorrow we are confronted by widespread urban violence, we would have trouble keeping on top of it unless a curfew was put in place, and the army called in to help enforce it.”