Coronavirus gives some protesters new mission: Preserving life

Why We Wrote This

This particular season of discontent is not conducive to conventional mass protests. But social action groups dedicated to the common good are finding the means, and new directions, to refocus their energies – temporarily.

Joe Penney/Reuters/File
Members of Senegalese civic movement Y'en a Marre meet at their office in Dakar in June 2013. One of its founding members, Fadel Barro (in blue shirt, against wall), says "the time for protest and mass demonstrations will return," but for now the group is switching gears to confront the coronavirus pandemic.

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From Senegal to Santiago, from Hong Kong to New Delhi, streets that over the past year brimmed with protests have gone mostly silent amid the coronavirus pandemic. But activists and experts say the quiet does not mean the movements have died out. Rather the mass protests are likely to come back once conditions allow.

Not only have few of the protesters’ demands been addressed, experts say, but in many places the pandemic has only underscored some of their grievances, including indifferent government and the growing divide between haves and have-nots.

“The activists who organized these movements aren’t going away, and their underlying grievances aren’t going away. So there’s little reason to think that the global discontent was a blip that won’t survive the coronavirus pandemic,” says Jonathan Pinckney at the United States Institute of Peace.

In Senegal, the group Y’en a Marre has switched its message from demanding transparent democracy to the more pressing need of promoting good social-distancing practices. “The time for protest and mass demonstrations will return,” says Fadel Barro, one of the group’s founders and leaders. “But for now our aim has to be to preserve life.”

Just over a month ago, Senegal’s social action group Y’en a Marre – “Fed Up” in French – was spearheading mass street demonstrations to protest everything from unresponsive government and public-sector corruption to high electricity bills.

These days taking it to the streets is no longer feasible, as governments around the globe ban large public gatherings in response to the coronavirus pandemic. But that does not mean the musicians, rappers, journalists, and other activists comprising Y’en a Marre have gone silent.

Au contraire.

Now the group known for its protest songs and for rallying Senegalese youth to action is adapting to address what Y’en a Marre’s leaders say is the West African nation’s biggest immediate threat.

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“Right now there is a lot of denial in Senegal. People aren’t taking the epidemic seriously. So we have decided to switch gears to get vital information out there and be of public utility,” says Fadel Barro, one of Y’en a Marre’s founders and leaders.

A song list that before demanded a transparent democracy now promotes good social-distancing practices and implores Senegalese youth to stay home and meet with friends online. Y’en a Marre organizes car caravans from which musicians, one per car, perform the new songs as they cruise from one neighborhood to another.

“The time for protest and mass demonstrations will return,” adds Mr. Barro, “but for now our aim has to be to preserve life.”

From Senegal to Santiago, from Hong Kong to New Delhi, streets that over the past year brimmed with an unprecedented wave of protests and discontent have gone mostly silent. But activists in many of these hotbeds of public dissatisfaction, as well as experts studying the global phenomenon, say the quiet does not mean the movements have died out.

Less like annuals that last but one season and more like perennials whose roots have been established and will grow again, they say, the mass protests are likely to come back once conditions allow.

Not only have few of the demands that sparked the protests been addressed, experts say, but in many places the pandemic has only underscored some of the key motivating factors behind the discontent – from indifferent government and failing public services to growing divides between the haves and have-nots. 

“The activists who organized these movements aren’t going away, and their underlying grievances aren’t going away, so there’s little reason to think that the global discontent was a blip that won’t survive the coronavirus pandemic,” says Jonathan Pinckney, chief researcher at the Program on Nonviolent Action at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington.

“If anything,” he adds, “we are seeing the movements in many countries adapt and shift to using the coronavirus crisis to highlight issues like government incompetence and negligence that were already among the major rallying cries of protesters before the pandemic.”

As one example, he cites how the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement over recent weeks has shifted to digital forms of expression to highlight what activists judge has been an already dismissive government’s inadequate response to the pandemic.

At the same time, some networks within Hong Kong’s movement have moved beyond criticizing the government to taking matters into their own hands – for example by organizing to import more than 100,000 medical masks to distribute in poorly served communities.

Jessie Pang/Reuters
Pro-democracy veteran Leung Kwok-hung speaks to reporters in Hong Kong before a Court of Appeal ruling on the controversial anti-mask law that the government had a right to invoke colonial-era emergency legislation, April 9, 2020.

One result, Mr. Pinckney says, is that a movement that in some respects was losing steam has found new purpose, with its public backing reinforced. He notes that a recent poll measuring public perceptions of responses to the pandemic showed higher marks for the pro-democracy movement and falling support for the Hong Kong government.

In Chile, where a subway fare hike in October touched off months of protests over widening economic divides, activists have quickly moved much of their expression of discontent indoors, while shifting their focus to the pandemic – and to the inequalities in access to health care and other services they say it highlights.

“The movement that got started on October 18 was all about economic inequality, the inadequacy of public services like health, education, and transportation, and the daily struggles of the many in a country where wealth is concentrated in the hands of so few,” says Andrés Velasquez, an administrator for a small Santiago construction company who regularly participated in the protests.

“It’s true that we can no longer gather in huge numbers in Plaza de Italia,” Santiago’s ground zero for the protest movement, he says. “But the epidemic has only reinforced people’s thinking about the weaknesses and unfairness in our economic and governance systems.”

Chile’s activists have lost little time in adapting their action to the new constraints of the coronavirus. One innovation is an online “guide” to protesting from home. Among the expressions of discontent are regular caserolazos – the banging of pots and pans from windows and balconies at an appointed hour, often announced on Facebook – that have been a staple of protest in Latin America since the grim days of dictatorships in the ’70s and ’80s.

Mr. Velasquez says he has made his own adjustments to his protest routine. Until the pandemic ended the mass marches, he joined other volunteers in providing food – which they dubbed “Hooded Gourmet” – to the often-hooded protesters making up the front line separating the mass of demonstrators from the police.

Now the protest-food cooks have shifted to providing meals to Santiago’s ramshackle camps of day laborers and the swelling ranks of people left unemployed as a result of the crisis.

“This movement has always been about solidarity, so we’re all looking for ways to maintain that solidarity and help us all get beyond this virus together,” Mr. Velasquez says. “But certainly all these actions are to some degree about maintaining our momentum.”

Mr. Pinckney of the United States Institute of Peace says he expects the pandemic to affect various national protest movements in distinct ways, with some weakened and others reinforced.

“In some countries we’re already seeing a rallying around the flag that could work against any expression of opposition, but in other countries they’re adapting in ways that are likely to leave [the movement] stronger,” he says. He also notes that the rough police treatment accorded some people displaced by the pandemic – as occurred in India – could turn into heightened repression once mass demonstrations return.

But Mr. Pinckney has a hunch that in some places the pandemic, because of how it represents a threat to all social strata, will tend to increase a sense of empathy with the most vulnerable. And that, he adds, could mean stepped up public support for protest movements.

Mr. Farro in Senegal is not so sure. A journalist by training, he remains skeptical that the pandemic will necessarily mean a stronger protest movement ahead.

“For sure it will change the way people interact with each other, but experience tells us that societies don’t change so easily, even after crises,” he says. He also worries that the state will use the pandemic as a “pretext” for extending limits on personal freedoms.

Mr. Velasquez in Santiago believes Chile’s movement will come out of the coronavirus challenge stronger – and he cites one experience in particular that has left him confident of that.

At home in his 16th-floor apartment one recent evening, he opened his windows to hear Freddie Mercury’s rendition of “Day-O” spontaneously shouted from balconies across his neighborhood, the words and responding cheers wafting across the city like a message of unity and hope.

After that communal experience and others like it, he says, “I’m certain this movement will come back, and will come back with even greater force.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, all our coronavirus coverage is free. No paywall.

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