COVID-19: A viral change in the regime

The pandemic has brought out not only many socio-economic and political fault lines in global governance, but also in individual countries

By Richard Mahapatra
Published: Monday 21 June 2021
Protests against Jair Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo: @Pedro_Paraiso / Twitter
Protests against Jair Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo: @Pedro_Paraiso / Twitter Protests against Jair Bolsonaro in Sao Paulo, Brazil. Photo: @Pedro_Paraiso / Twitter

The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has fuelled a lot of political violence, protests by people and also changes in government.

On June 19, 2021 Brazil reported massive protest rallies in all its 22 states and capital Brasilia against the government’s inability to control the pandemic. That day, Brazil crossed 0.5 million deaths from COVID-19, the second-highest death toll in the world after the United States.

A massive rally in Sao Paulo unfurled a huge banner with a bold demand note: “Life, Bread, Vaccines and Education.” Protesters termed the incumbent government led by President Jair Bolsonaro as “genocidal”.

Left or Right, everybody on the political spectrum joined the protests, turning this into one of the largest protests against a government on the pandemic (mis)management in the world. One of the placards in a protest in Brasilia read: “Half a million reasons to oust Bolsonaro.” Similar protests were held across many states on May 29.  

In March, many European countries including Germany reported similar protests against governments not being able to effectively manage the pandemic and its impacts, both health and economic. The majority of these protests were against fresh restrictions due to the resurgence of the pandemic. There were slogans on how governments were not able to control the pandemic and protect people from it.

After a temporary lull in the early months of last year coinciding with the outbreak and lockdowns, protests are back. The year 2019 was known as the ‘year of protests’. The trend continued till March 2020 and then, the pandemic struck. There was almost a lull in public protests as lockdowns and restrictions were clamped down by countries. But, within a few months, they erupted in such numbers that 2020 had surpassed the previous ‘year of protests’.

In the first four months of 2021, there have been a slew of protests across the world. What makes the resurgence of protests during the pandemic different is their character: Increasingly, the protests are over mismanagement of the pandemic. This shows how the world is faltering in its response to the biggest crisis in a century. Or, people are becoming impatient with lingering lockdowns and shutdowns impacting life and livelihoods.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a non-profit that collects and analyses reported political violence and protests across the world, in its recent analysis says: “The combined result is that demonstrations actually increased in 2020 relative to the year prior, not just despite — but in part because of — the pandemic.”

The pandemic has influenced the conflict / protests scenarios in the world in two ways. First, its mismanagement has emerged as the most pressing point for people to protest against their governments.

Second, the ongoing protests / demonstrations before the pandemic have become more accentuated with its added impacts, like the increase in already existing inequality. On the other hand, countries and groups involved in violent conflicts have used the pandemic to further crackdown on people, in incidents of political violence.

In India, we have witnessed large-scale protests by farmers, by health workers, by tribal communities against projects that disturb their land and forests, by students defending human rights and by political parties and activists for civil rights.

In the last three months, high courts and the Supreme Court have been occupied with either petitions on government responses to the pandemic or the government’s application of stringent laws including terrorism provisions against journalists, students and activists raising uncomfortable questions on various developments including the pandemic.

“Conflict events declined on aggregate compared to 2019, but political violence increased in more countries than it decreased and most wars continued to rage,” finds the ACLED study. In India it says that political violence has increased. According to its report, since the outbreak of the pandemic till April 2021, India has reported 200 pandemic-related events most of which are ‘political Violence’.

The pandemic has brought out not only many socio-economic and political fault lines in global governance, but also in individual countries. In India, judiciary intervention in making available free vaccination “within the fundamental right to life” is a pointer to how the raging pandemic would impact the polity.

We have already seen the ouster of many governments by popular votes, primarily using the mismanagement of the pandemic situation. These governments anyway had also a devilish track record of violating citizens’ rights and democratic values. 

The pandemic just made those grievances more pronounced. This pandemic may evolve as the most politically devastating one as well. 

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