When COVID-19 Ends, Mass Protests Against Dictators Will Return

The pandemic can’t shield repressive—or inept—regimes forever.

Teenagers around the country have a very specific plan for what they will do when they are released from COVID confinement: party!

Around the world, however, the decriminalization and return of mass gatherings likely will lead to something else: demonstrations!

Governments and regimes everywhere are going to face a greater test of their resilience and staying power once masses of people are freed from public-health fears and able to express their dissent. Demonstrators who were a prominent feature in the streets of Hong Kong or on France’s highways have all been forced to curtail their collective protest activities. Instead of gathering in person, they are cowering from pestilence.

In country after country, concerns over public health are trumping the urge to amass in their outrage over social inequity, curtailed human rights, government corruption, resource scarcity, healthcare inadequacy, supply-chain failures, leader ineptitude, worker exploitation and citizen disempowerment. Some of this pent-up frustration is finding online expression via virtual demonstrations. Internet-based organizing may provide some outlet for public expression, but is no substitute for real world assembled venting.

Public suffering and popular disenchantment with leaders who failed to serve citizens before this pandemic are building in a pressure cooker of protest that will surely blow its lid. This is as true in authoritarian regimes as it is in democratic states. Democracies, however, are more vulnerable and responsive to the mood and will of indignant people.

Democratic systems around the world have implemented stay-at-home orders or guidelines that keep people apart, whether in parks or in front of parliaments. The actions are deemed necessary and have unquestionably made a difference in containing viral spread and flattening the curve. These measures have certainly succeeded in keeping the disgruntled far away from the accountable.

Strained governments currently struggling to manage reasonable pandemic responses should expect to face the music once it is safe for the disgruntled to organize and protest. Leaders everywhere will confront an angry, frustrated, aggrieved, unemployed electorate demanding justice and seeking political retribution for any mistakes or miscalculations currently being made.

In places where government legitimacy was already being challenged by public demonstrations against unpopular policies—places like Turkey or Algeria—the lockdown orders have provided regimes a reprieve. In fact, for authoritarians and illegitimate rulers, their enforceable orders demanding citizens to stay off the streets and inside their homes has been a godsend. Many of them are eyeing this current status as a preferred state and a permanent feature.

Surveillance states such as China are continually experimenting with new tech tools to control their people. Authoritarians are deploying both smartphone apps that read QR codes to manage movement and assembly. They are also relying on snooping police and neighborhood snitches to remind citizens that they are always being watched. Privacy falls by the wayside and, along with it, the anonymity of private thought and public movement.

In some parts of the world, people’s deepest fears are realized. Lifesaving, convenient, politically empowering smartphones have turned into devices used 24/7 not only to monitor citizens’ every move, conversation, financial transaction and medical interaction, but also to report it to a centralized and powerful government entity.

In the United States, people across the country have regularly opposed any government-run identification system, shunning past attempts to create national ID cards. Smartphones, however, perform the same function. They possess within them a treasure trove of data that reveal the most intimate details of our lives. Citizens have voluntarily filled them with personal and private data in exchange for convenience or free services delivered by profit-seeking companies—whether Facebook or WeChat.

This pandemic makes every citizen more vulnerable to governments demanding this smartphone data, even if the reason is to protect communities. In authoritarian states, companies must hand over this private data to the government—often for good, but also for ill. While protesters are temporarily off the streets, they are still on their phones.

It may take a while before “Yellow Vest” flash mobs reassemble to block France’s highways or for the early return to protest in Hong Kong’s malls to gather steam. Malls that are barely able to service shoppers, however, seem unlikely gathering places for multitudes opposed to Beijing’s covetous designs over the former British colony.

Right now, Americans willing to protest in the streets feel strongly that the current lockdowns infringe on their rights of speech, assembly, and religion. Some paranoid citizens believe that the federal government is using COVID-19 as an excuse to impose armed authority over society and assert dictatorial powers. A few of the assembling folks are just cranks.

The ultimate protest in a democracy is expressed at the ballot box. For those currently in power and either flailing or failing, the verdict on their crisis management skills and actions will arrive in November.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.