As measures to contain the spread of coronavirus transform public life, activists are having to alter their forms of protest. With many governments discouraging, or even prohibiting groups from gathering, mass protests are becoming impossible. Political participation, however, may be more necessary than ever. Not quite compatible with social distancing, demonstrations are taking place on a smaller, more controlled scale, or even moving online.
In mid-March, scheduled demonstrations in Moscow and St. Petersburg to protest Putin’s plans to amend the Russian constitution were called off. Instead, smaller protests against the changes, which would allow Putin to run for another term of presidency, took place in several cities. In Kazan, for example, 19 people protested, after authorities allowed a gathering of 20. The Moscow Times reported that protesters wore face masks, had their temperature checked and their hands disinfected.
Across the globe in South America, Brazilians protested President Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis from their balconies rather than gathering in the streets. Millions of people in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro banged pots and pans together, calling for their president to step down. The protests broke out during a televised statement by Bolsonaro, announcing emergency measures. The Brazilian president had previously delayed measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, referring to them as “hysteria”.
As people are urged by governments and peers to stay home, meetings, parties and workouts have moved online— and so have protests.
Fridays for Future activists, usually mobilizing students all over the world to participate in weekly climate strikes, have announced a series of online protests. The movement’s online platform will host weekly webinars with scientists, journalists and activists. The organisers have announced, “Fridays for Future is taking responsibility and moving its protests to the internet.” The first of these online sessions featured journalist Naomi Klein and the World Health Organisation’s climate change and health team leader Diarmid Campbell-Lendrum.
A German migrant solidarity group is moving its activism online as well. In light of the humanitarian disaster looming as coronavirus reaches refugee camps in Greece, where social distancing is impossible, Seebrücke activists are appealing to the European Union for the immediate evacuation of the camps. During a digital demonstration, protesters uploaded photos presenting the group’s slogan, #LeaveNoOneBehind. A livestream featured various speakers and over 5000 participants followed an online protest route, collectively messaging politicians through various social media channels.
Online activism is not exclusive to these times. For years, activists have been using social media to spread their messages and extend their platform. Forced to work exclusively online, however, protesters have had to come up with replacements for physical demonstrations. Sat at home, people have time to read up on social and political issues that they are confronted with online. Digital protests allow those people access who are otherwise unable, or unwilling, to take part in street protests.
Still, an online demonstration does not disrupt public life like a rally in the streets would. Instagram stories are easily muted and angry Facebook posts lost in a flood of isolation-memes. A picket line is more visible than a livestream, and shouting protesters are louder than enraged videos.
While the measures that have been taken to slow the spread of COVID-19 are devastating to the global economy and are transforming public life, the government responses to the crisis are largely accepted as necessary. The need for citizens to make their voices heard, however, does not go into lockdown. In fact, citizens taking responsibility, not only in staying at home where this is advised but in holding their governments accountable, may be more necessary than ever. While some measures, which would have seemed extreme only a few weeks ago, are crucial to slow infection rates, other policies passed in the name of fighting the pandemic are alarming.
A new law in Hungary allows the president to rule by decree for the time being. The law was recently passed in parliament, where President Orbán’s own Fidesz party holds a majority. The time limit for this declared state of emergency is indefinite. Several Members of European Parliament have expressed concerns about the impact these changes have on the rule of law and the upholding of democratic principles.
A different wave of concerns addresses the trade-off between protecting citizens’ privacy and protecting public health. The South Korean government has started publishing anonymous ‘travel logs’ of coronavirus patients, tracking movement through GPS phone signals, credit card records and video surveillance. Other nations are following suit. German chancellor Merkel recently expressed her approval of plans to introduce an app which, voluntarily, would allow the use of anonymous location data to track the spread of the virus. British authorities are working together with researchers at the University of Oxford to develop a similar app, also voluntary, to track contacts and inform people who may have been exposed to the virus.
David Leslie, an ethicist who studies the governance of data-driven technologies at the Alan Turing Institute, said that people’s reservations about data collection could be set aside during the pandemic.
“I believe that if we put the proper protocols of responsible innovation in place— protocols which ensure that these technologies are democratically governed, based on individual and community consent, proportional, and constrained with sunset provisions— a higher level of intrusiveness would be more widely acceptable.”
Governments worldwide are struggling to bring down infection rates and keep their economies afloat. Measures that would otherwise seem extreme are accepted, and probably necessary, during a pandemic. The role of protests in confronting governments has not disappeared but transformed. The line between containing the coronavirus and eroding civil liberties is increasingly blurred, meaning protests— in revised, socially distanced forms— are more important than ever.