Thinking Outside the Crisis: The Pandemic & Social Unrest

Even before the pandemic, we were living in a revolutionary age. Now, long-standing injustices and inequalities are amplified by COVID-19.

This article is part of the Independent’s ongoing series, Thinking Outside the Crisis. Read Robin Whitaker’s introduction here.

The pandemic is first of all a human tragedy, causing suffering and loss in an immediate and embodied way for millions of people all over the world. But it is a crisis beyond just human health, in the sense that it disrupts and upends economies, social relations, culture, and politics generally. One obvious outcome of the pandemic must be increased social unrest.

Here in the opening phases of the pandemic, there are lots of examples of people finding glimmers of hope and positive affirmations. In major cities people come out on their balconies and cheer for healthcare workers. There have been impromptu concerts and singing from rooftops to raise spirits. People are also rallying to their governments, as is shown in recent Canadian polling data of a jump in support for federal and provincial leaders. Opinion polls even show that some 64% of Conservative voters in Canada support Justin Trudeau running whatever deficit is necessary to address the crisis, and even greater numbers support the restrictions introduced so far.

Yet even as many are rallying to the flag and supporting their governments in these early days, the pandemic is fuelling social unrest and exposing injustice and inequality. As the crisis drags on, perhaps for many months or even years, levers that the federal and provincial governments can pull to reduce the likelihood of unrest—like relief measures—may not be viable. Following Lauren Berlant, the optimism that so many are keen to latch onto here in Canada may become cruel when the facade is torn away and the grim reality of the situation becomes clear. As in Italy, the singing will stop.

Pandemic Spurs Ongoing Unrest

It is worth remembering that many countries were already experiencing significant unrest in the year prior to the pandemic: the so-called Global Protest Wave of 2019. Moreover, the world has been in the throes of significant and recurrent waves of crisis, shock, and unrest since at least the 2008 Financial Crisis and the 2011-12 Revolutionary Wave that originated in the Arab Spring. Even before the pandemic, we were living in a revolutionary age.

Now, against this background of ongoing protests, signs of social turmoil specifically related to the pandemic are being reported in many countries, including Nigeria, El Salvador, Italy, the United States, Myanmar, China, Spain, Indonesia, Colombia, and the Philippines, to name a few.

Although Canada has not seen a marked increase so far, the potential for widespread social unrest is encouraged by growing numbers of people out of work and facing insecurity, and commentators have been quick to caution that the infringement on civil rights in the lockdown may itself be a source of unrest. Of particular concern for Canadians is also high levels of infections in the United States, plus the intensification of unrest in numerous US states in response to lockdowns and restrictions. As the old adage goes, when America coughs Canada gets a cold.

And in Newfoundland and Labrador, which has been a hotbed of protest for the past few years, exemplified by the 2016 budget protests, the 2016 occupation of Muskrat Falls, the 2017 DFO protest, and the 2019 Climate Strike, it is not difficult to imagine an upsurge of protest coming out of the pandemic. As I suggested in a December 2019 article for the Independent, since Dwight Ball came to power in late 2015, there has been constant protest and political turmoil. It is no secret that the province is facing serious financial and political challenges, nor is it difficult to imagine that the pandemic will intensify an already tenuous situation.

As the Pandemic Unfolds

So that is something of the background and context of unrest globally, in Canada, and in NL. What, then, may we expect to see?

To say that there will be increased social unrest resulting from the pandemic is not to speculate precisely where renewed and widespread social unrest may lead. Other writers and theorists, including those contributing to this series of articles in the Indy, discuss the kinds of political and social projects the pandemic makes possible or makes more likely, and no such projects can be carried out if they are not imagined. In this light, the proliferation of calls from all sides for widespread and systemic change out of the pandemic is noteworthy and welcome.

Most descriptions of what kinds of worlds may emerge out of the present crisis, whether utopian or authoritarian or otherwise, presuppose unrest but seldom mention it. We seem to intuitively understand, as Arundhati Roy points out in a recent article, that the pandemic is a portal, and perhaps this is an important initial takeaway. It will be in the context of unrest or because of unrest that any political projects become possible.

It is also crucially important to recognize the enormous disparities of the impacts of the pandemic on different countries and regions, and between different communities within countries themselves. As I said in the opening, long-standing injustices and inequalities are magnified by the pandemic. And it is these systemic failings (or these all too perfect operations of systems doing what they were designed to do) that are the fuel of unrest, as the pandemic may be the spark.

Poorer countries will be most vulnerable to mass dissidence and uprisings resulting from the pandemic, partly because many poorer countries are already dealing with various kinds of instability. For many of the world’s poorest people, self-isolating and physical distancing is simply not possible, water is scarce, and there is little or no access to healthcare. Even in developing countries like Brazil and India, where standards of living have risen in recent decades, huge numbers of people live in slums and favelas, and it is these areas that will predictably be where the pandemic has the worst effects and also where unrest will grow.

But because the pandemic is by definition global, its impacts will be confined to no one country, rich or poor. This has led to calls from economists to recognize that economic and social implosions in poor and developing countries will have serious knock-on effects in rich countries—everyone really is in this together, even if the suffering and hardships is not equitably distributed. This realization, cynically viewed, has provided the impetus for an unprecedented International Monetary Fund program of debt cancellation for some of the poorest countries in the world. Such measures aim to shore up poor and developing countries as a bulwark for the rich.

Power Responds

So then, how will states respond to unrest? Increasing unrest will mean a direct challenge to power in many countries, and authoritarian and despotic regimes will respond in the only ways they know how: with direct violence. It should not be surprising to see some governments fall, but neither should it be surprising to see some governments retain power through brutality. A recent example of such brutality is the severe crackdown in Nigeria, where security forces have killed more people than the virus.

An entirely different (perhaps surreal) example of a response is unfolding in the United States, where the president is actively encouraging unrest. Of course, many of the rallies in recent days have been carried out by the president’s base of supporters, some of whom are tied in with militia movements and other elements on the far-right of American politics. This points to another possible form of response, since opportunistic strongman politicians may view the crisis as a way to secure more power. Those in power sometimes invite and promote unrest in the service of their own political projects. Again, I am not making predictions about what may happen in any given country, but the pandemic and the unrest it generates will make coups much more possible.

And as has been shown in some countries already, an expanded surveillance apparatus is another possible response. A phone app is being used in South Korea that alerts people when they are near a confirmed COVID-19 case. Meanwhile, Australia is preparing an app that allows for contact tracing by tracking everywhere an infected person has been for the previous weeks. As a recent article in The Guardian on the dangers of this expanding surveillance capability notes, China uses an app that colour-codes people and says who may or may not leave their house, and Poland has an app that obliges people to photograph themselves to prove they are at home. Polling data in Canada suggests the public in this country strongly approve of expanding surveillance in the context of the pandemic. It is a simple step for such expanded surveillance to be bootstrapped into quelling unrest.

The Right to Revolution

On the one hand it seems easy to say that during a global health emergency, revolution should be put on hold. However, conditions in many places dictate that the pandemic will simply increase the likelihood of unrest, uprising, and revolution. This may very well have consequences for the number who may eventually die from the pandemic, but such revolutions cannot be expected to wait. Nothing was done to address the conditions that made unrest possible before the pandemic. So now, when desperate people are even more desperate those existing injustices and inequalities can no longer be contained.

Unfortunately it is also a time when many people are singularly worried about their own families and communities. In this sense the pandemic may provide a kind of cover or fog, as each nation looks inward, that enables authoritarianism and brutality. And it is for this reason that we must be alert to what happens in other places and show solidarity with the struggles of oppressed people everywhere.

Finally, everything is by no means perfect here in Canada. It is true we have a public healthcare system and some forms of social security. And it is unlikely we will see the extent of unrest that may sweep through poor and developing countries hand in hand with the pandemic. However, we should look to the numerous unaddressed injustices in this country as catalysts for a marked increase in unrest in Canada in the coming months and years.

Buckle up.

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