Mar 29, 2020 - World

The year of the protest meets the year of the lockdown

Dave Lawler, author of World

Hong Kong demonstrators protest a government ban on face masks in October. Photo by Laurel Chor/Getty Images

The year of the mass uprising has collided with the year of the coronavirus lockdown, leaving protest movements around the world stalled. 

The big picture: The enduring images of 2019 are of protest — from Hong Kong to Khartoum, across the Middle East and through much of Latin America. Seemingly overnight, though, social distancing has made such mass demonstrations almost unthinkable.

Hong Kong’s protests raged for most of 2019, climaxing in November with showdowns on university campuses but leaving existential questions about relations with mainland China unresolved heading into the new year.

  • During the protests, face masks were worn as a symbol of defiance and protection against tear gas. Now, the same masks are worn to protect against infection, AP notes.
  • Organizers continue to press their demands for greater autonomy, but they won’t be backed by millions-strong demonstrations anytime soon.

Chile’s typically stable politics were upended in October by chaotic demonstrations that carried into this year and forced the government to agree to a national referendum.

  • That vote, on whether to draft a new constitution that better addresses concerns over inequality, has now been postponed.
  • “First we need to stay alive, then we keep trying to change the world,” one street vender who had taken part in protests but was now staying away told Reuters.

In India, protests against laws that discriminate against Muslims were intensifying in the weeks leading up to the coronavirus outbreak.

  • Large gatherings are now illegal with the country entering lockdown. The site of one long-standing protest was cleared on Tuesday.

Planned protests are on hold everywhere from Algeria to Zimbabwe.

  • In Algeria, anti-government protests had been held for 56 consecutive weekends, until last week.
  • “It does not mean we are giving up in our fight against the dictatorship,” a spokesperson for Zimbabwe’s opposition said of the decision to freeze protests. “We just want to allow the coronavirus to pass.”
  • In Paris earlier this month, police used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse Yellow Vest protesters who defied a ban on large gatherings.
  • Climate activist Greta Thunberg has, for the time being, gone from leading young people on climate marches to urging them to stay home. (She also suspects she had the coronavirus.)

Protesters are adapting to the times — from banging pots on balconies in Brazil to gathering in a massive virtual demonstration in Israel.

  • But the sorts of mass protests that brought down five world leaders in 2019 are on hold just about everywhere.
  • Some autocratic-leaning governments will likely use that ban to their advantage.

Where things stand: Women in Mexico attempted a novel tactic on March 9. To protest violence against women, they held a “day without women” by staying inside their homes all day. 

  • Now, the world has moved inside. It’s the streets that are empty.

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