Political violence related to COVID-19 could lead to 'unravelling of societies' worldwide, observers say

·6 min read
A supporter of Tunisia's biggest political party, the Islamist Ennahda, scuffles with a police officer near the parliament building in Tunis on July 26. (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters - image credit)
A supporter of Tunisia's biggest political party, the Islamist Ennahda, scuffles with a police officer near the parliament building in Tunis on July 26. (Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters - image credit)

Rock-throwing crowds angry over government mishandling of a spike in COVID-19 cases triggered the dismissal of Tunisia's parliament this week, in what opponents call a "coup" by the country's president.

Amid clouds of tear gas, demonstrators clashed with police in Paris on Saturday over proposed laws forcing all health-care workers to be inoculated, while thousands of "freedom" protesters filled the streets of Australia over a renewed lockdown.

From South Africa to Cuba, Haiti to Lebanon, we are seeing some of the biggest riots, protests and challenges to governments in decades. And many seem to be sparked by the economic and social impacts of the coronavirus and government attempts to contain it.

Dr. Prabhat Jha, director of the Centre for Global Health Research in Toronto, calls it a "perfect storm" of grievances ignited by the catastrophe of COVID.

WATCH | Tunisians protest, country's president dismisses parliament:

"COVID has exposed the underlying fault lines of anxiety and distrust" around the world, Jha said, especially between developed and developing nations.

"If you've got unemployment, inequality and a failure of government to make sure that everyone is covered, and then more broadly, a failure of global government to make sure that every country has a vaccine and every citizen has a vaccine, then all those fault lines really portend years of social unrest," said Jha, who has done emergency pandemic work in Sierra Leone and run projects in India.

Protest activity up

Much of the world is already witnessing it.

Global data collected by ACLED, a U.S. non-profit that tracks armed conflict and unrest, showed that political violence rose in 49 per cent of countries last year.

After a brief dip in demonstrations in the early days of the pandemic — as fear and distancing rules kept people apart — protests rose by seven per cent in 2020.

That's "not just despite — but in part because of — the pandemic," ACLED concluded. It affected 58 per cent of countries, the highest number in years.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters
Benoit Tessier/Reuters

The group's researchers also found that state repression internationally increased since the arrival of COVID. From Hungary to Hong Kong and beyond, governments used the "unique cover" of the pandemic to impose restrictions aimed at consolidating authority, "a means to stifle opposition and to limit any challenge to power," ACLED said.

In South Africa this month, the challenge to the government's power came from the streets. It was sparked by the jailing of former South African president Jacob Zuma, who is on trial for corruption.

But the fuel for more than a week of rioting and looting — the most violent the country had seen in decades — was a pandemic that has pushed unemployment beyond 30 per cent in one of the most unequal societies in the world.

"The economic suffering, the lack of jobs, income-earning opportunities, that's part of the pandemic in South Africa," said Rita Abrahamsen, who teaches African politics at the University of Ottawa. "It just added to the level of frustration, the level of alienation, the level of anger with the state."

Vaccine deficits

The fact that South Africa, like all African countries, has been struggling to get enough vaccines hasn't helped. Some of the most populous countries on the continent — Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Algeria — have a vaccination rate of two doses for every 100 people, at best.

In South Africa, that number is 12 per 100. In Canada, it's 128 per 100.

Sumaya Hisham/Reuters
Sumaya Hisham/Reuters

The virus is surging across much of the continent of 1.2 billion people, as a third wave of infections has increased deaths in many places where the numbers have been relatively low. African observers fear an explosion of unrest could come with it.

"We are existing on the cusp. It could go either way," said Nanjala Nyabola, a Kenyan writer and political analyst who spoke to CBC News from Nairobi.

"I think there is a lot of economic and social frustration in a lot of [African] countries," she said, such that "any triggering event could lead to resistance and political upheaval."

On the other hand, Nyabola points out that many local and national opposition movements have stepped in to try to fill government shortcomings, promoting health and safety during the pandemic instead of protest.

In remote parts of Kenya, health advice is being given in local languages by social action groups over community radio. Hand sanitizers and masks are distributed by activists.

In Senegal, the biggest protest movement has abruptly shifted its efforts to public health education. Going by the name Y'en a Marre — "enough is enough" in French slang — the collective is led by rappers and journalists.

Leo Correa/The Associated Press
Leo Correa/The Associated Press

Y'en a Marre has a history of organizing young people on the streets to confront the government, but now tells them to avoid crowds. The group promotes handwashing as much as it does social change in its latest music video, Shield Against Coronavirus.

Despite these efforts, Nyabola says "the risk remains."

"Because when there is a real cause, anger and protest becomes more attractive than organizing."

Unrest in the West

Developed countries have not avoided the waves of unrest.

In the United States, the group ACLED tracked increases and decreases in the frequency of protests, including the sweeping Black Lives Matter movement. Remarkably, the numbers "mimicked" spikes and valleys in U.S. infection rates throughout 2020.

By November, the group says 40 per cent of all demonstrations were related to the pandemic.

That includes the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, says Zachariah Mamphilly, co-author of Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change, who studies protest movements worldwide at City University of New York.

John Minchillo/The Associated Press
John Minchillo/The Associated Press

"There was a real strong sense of COVID denialism present in [those] protests, a sense that COVID was a product of nefarious international forces — Bill Gates, George Soros and others," Mamphilly said.

He says frustrations over the pandemic — and especially the way former president Donald Trump dealt with it — spurred on progressive movements in the U.S. as well.

"That discontent was manifested pretty uniformly across the country," Mamphilly said, with some of the biggest in places where "there are fewer black people," such as Portland, Ore. "That protest around police violence really encapsulated a much larger discontent with the Trump administration."

'A sense of despair'

Still, for those who have studied how pandemics have the potential to change the societies, it's what happens in Africa and other parts of the developing world that's worrisome.

"There is a sense of despair in South Africa and Haiti and Cuba that you didn't see with the Spanish influenza, because COVID-19 is not only making people poorer but it is lasting far longer," said Frank M. Snowden, a professor emeritus of the history of medicine at Yale University.

WATCH | Cubans protest poverty, demand more freedom:

Snowden, who is also the author of Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present, said that while the COVID-19 pandemic has epidemiological similarities to the Spanish flu, "you didn't really see the kind of social unrest that we're experiencing today."

Today's inequality is turning "misery into a sense of injustice and a sense that [some countries have] been abandoned by the global north," Snowden said.

He worries that if it continues, "this may be a first wave of the unravelling of societies in parts of the developing world."

Just the beginning, he fears, of something we have not seen before.

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