Will COVID-19 Lead to a Global Spring?
The quick answer is yes. COVID-19 is indeed leading us into a global spring — a movement where more citizens will be challenging their governments, certain policies or leaders through protests in all regions of the world. Did our politicians do enough for us when the pandemic started and, more importantly, are they doing enough for us now? Much citizen frustration lies ahead. But let’s be honest with ourselves — the truth is we were already headed in the direction of a global spring even before the pandemic. Let’s not forget 2019 was in many ways the “year of the street protest”, as citizens questioned political, economic and social issues in their countries. So, as the pandemic eases in some parts of the world and (sadly accelerates in other areas), what can we expect in the coming months and year(s) — how will the global spring unfold?
Let’s break it down:
First, remember that in the last decade citizen frustration has experienced a sustained rise, with riots increasing by 282 percent and strikes up by 800 percent (according to the Global Peace Index). Just think back in recent years — tech-armed citizens have been notably unhappy in both democratic and nondemocratic countries. Perhaps it began with the Arab Spring in 2010 (even if years later, many are still unhappy). But look beyond and it’s undeniable — citizens in many political contexts in other parts of the world have challenged the legitimacy of their governments and policies for many years, from education protests in Chile and austerity demonstrations across the EU to anti-military junta protests in Thailand and inflation protests in Venezuela. Even before the pandemic, there was a recurring feeling among citizens that there must be a better, more legitimate way to govern in most countries and political systems; and that we deserve, well, better from our leaders.
Second, consider what we have been seeing since the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11 — a new wave of protests against government. Despite a global death toll of 500,000 with more than 10 million cases, citizen frustration has largely focused on the lockdown and social distancing measures in places like the UK, Germany, Italy, India, Rwanda and Iraq; in some cases citizens have protested insufficient medical support at hospitals or faulty testing. This frustration will persist, especially as some countries re-impose lockdown measures amid second or delayed first waves. But look for these protests to evolve as more citizens question more aspects of governments’ COVID-19 policies, especially those that are perceived to be undemocratic (e.g. how contact tracing infringes on individual rights). We will likely revisit our pre-pandemic concerns about whether democracy is still the best system in our larger political spring.
Third, these COVID-19 protests have also transitioned to more sensitive identity-related movements initially triggered by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Anti-racism protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement have spread from the US to over 60 countries in just one month, reminding us of the power of the citizen protester; and showing us that — even in the middle of a global pandemic — there is a sense of a citizen-led global community with shared values (yes, a silver lining to the pandemic so far). These protests have since reignited the black trans movement in cities like New York and London. Of course, it is worth noting the counter-protests that have also occurred involving certain hate groups. Look for more identity-related movements to surface as different ideological groups clash with each other and with government as part of our social spring.
Fourth, as the months roll on, look for this anti-government movement to focus more explicitly on economic issues. We already know that COVID-19 has led to unexpected unemployment (the ILO expects 25 million to be jobless during the pandemic). It is also damaging years of progress in curbing global poverty, as the global economy experiences its worst recession since the Great Depression (a $12 trillion COVID-19 hit, according to the IMF). And we know governments’ relief packages will not necessarily help everyone longer term. This will mean more frustrated citizens or “precariats” (a term coined by economist Guy Standing) who fall through the cracks. Throw in other economic risks like a global hunger crisis, looming automation unemployment and soaring debt and there will be more frustration among citizens who don’t rebound after the pandemic, as we head into our economic spring.
Is this global spring — rooted in political, economic and social concerns — inevitable? It feels like it right now. But this crisis can also be a reminder that we have an opportunity to reshape our future in what the World Economic Forum calls a “Great Reset”. This is a time to reimagine our future with new ideas. The question is what strategies can be used to ease the frustration of the citizen protester?
And what about you, Reader — what would you suggest we do to get us on track for a better future?
Prof Aziz wrote this blog while working remotely from London during the lockdown; her related book A GLOBAL SPRING: Navigating a Post-Pandemic World launches in 2022. The prequel and 2020 edition of her award-winning, bestselling book FUTURE WORLD ORDER is on Amazon (15% of profits go to her brother’s memorial fund for Syrian refugee youth via charity Peace & Sport).