Reviews | How the pandemic is fueling global discontent
September was eventful: more than 200 Australians arrested during protests across the city and a temporary no-fly zone was declared over Melbourne. Rubber bullets and tear gas released by Thai riot police into an angry crowd. Health care workers assaulted in Canada. Gatherings of up to 150,000 people across the Netherlands.
The pandemic coincided with an upsurge in protests around the world. In the past 18 months, people have taken to the streets in India, Yemen, Tunisia, Eswatini, Cuba, Colombia, Brazil and the United States. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project reports that the number of protests around the world increased by 7% from 2019 to 2020 despite government-imposed containment measures and other measures designed to limit public gatherings.
What is driving this international discontent?
Some experts argue that this is the pandemic itself. Residents of poorer countries protest the lack of available vaccines or personal protective equipment, while those in richer countries oppose perceived violations of civil liberties.
But the continued protests in poor and rich countries cannot simply be explained as reactions to the pandemic. The presence of simultaneous uprisings in countries with a range of income levels, types of government, and geopolitical significance indicates a deeper disillusionment: the loss of faith in the social contract that shapes the relationship between governments and their people. Simply put, governments today seem unable to offer both and effective governance. And ordinary citizens have had enough.
The rise of protests around the world actually started long before the pandemic. In the aftermath of the 2008 economic crash, mass protests – including Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring – called for a fundamental overhaul of the post-Cold War social contract between governments and their people. Since President George HW Bush’s announcement of a new world order in 1990, this contract has been largely based on the idea that market-centered policies will lead to world prosperity and peace.
But the 2008 financial crisis highlighted the shortcomings of this social contract. Both political and economic in nature, the protests that followed demanded that governments respect basic citizens’ rights and close the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. Authoritarian and democratic leaders around the world have responded to the financial crisis with more neoliberal policies such as fiscal austerity and the privatization of public services – policies that have only heightened popular anger.
This frustration continued in the so-called Covid protests today. While many protests explicitly invoke the pandemic, the greatest latent concern is the inability of modern governments to serve the majority of their populations, especially the middle and poor classes. This failure is made visible by the growing number of monopolies, the growing political power of corporations, the relentless rise of economic inequalities and the policies that exacerbate climate change.
Add the botched responses to Covid and it is no surprise that citizens have little confidence in their leaders, elected or not, to face these challenges. After Colombian President Iván Duque attempted to overhaul the healthcare system in April and apply new taxes even as the pandemic increased, there were mass protests and blockages along all major highways for weeks. As a young activist told the BBC: “It’s not just about tax reform, or reform of the health care system, and all the other laws. These are people who show the dissatisfaction they have felt for a long time.
Covid mismanagement is just the latest offense.
At the start of the pandemic, experts wondered whether it would be democracies or autocracies that would be better equipped to handle the crisis. Nineteen months later, it’s clear the two have struggled. Democracy, at least in its dominant neoliberal form, prioritizes the rights of individuals and businesses while ignoring the basic needs of the social body. Authoritarian governments – even in countries with robust social protection systems – cannot respond effectively without stoking popular resentment over their use of force to ensure compliance.
This is why South Africa, once a model of neoliberal democracy now mired in corruption, and Cuba, a model of social authoritarianism that initially outperformed in its response to Covid, have recently faced significant challenges for their leadership.
The cracks in the social contract are not new. But unlike in the past, when the militants pushed the colonial and then communist powers to reinvent a different social structure, there is no good and obvious alternative capable of questioning the current neoliberal consensus.
Going back to the pre-Covid status quo around the world is not an option. The pandemic is fundamentally a social challenge. Any social challenge requires a collective response, and any collective endeavor requires trust. Confidence in government in many countries has been shattered by leaders relying on market-based solutions to the detriment of most citizens. A study by Pew Research shows that Americans’ confidence in their government has fallen to 24%, down from an average of 54% in 2001.
Public confidence is still high in some wealthy democracies with strong social protection programs, such as New Zealand and the Nordic countries. Governments there have been rightly praised for their response to Covid and faced little protest. But even the poorest countries with high trust in government, such as Bangladesh and Vietnam, and the Indian state of Kerala performed better and experienced less unrest than their market-centric peers. Notably, Vietnam and Kerala have avoided neoliberal economic policies.
Social trust is a precious thing. It can take generations to build, but can be lost in a flash. And so, protests are likely to continue where that confidence remains low, either due to a botched Covid response or other crises like climate change, dysfunctional political institutions, and corporate greed.
The pandemic has revealed the disconnect between governments and their citizens. They are now calling for a different, fairer world.
Zacharie Mampilly (@Ras_Karya) is a professor at the Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at the City University of New York. He is the co-author of “Africa Uprising: Popular Protest and Political Change”.
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