From digitising dissent in Lebanon to cultivating new networks in India, the pandemic is not killing anti-government protests, but giving them a new direction.
For student protester and freelance journalist Shaheen Abdulla, the focus during the last few months has been on the anti-government protests dominating India.
Four months ago, the ruling Hindu nationalist party - the Bharatiya Janata Party - passed a citizenship bill that critics say discriminates against Muslims and goes against the country’s secular constitution. The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) led to mass demonstrations and 24 hour sit-ins across the country, some of which were met with police violence.
Yet with India enforcing a strict 21-day lockdown on March 24, Abdulla and his fellow protesters have faced an abrupt end to their political actions.
Abdulla is a student at Delhi's Jamia Millia Islamia University and was among those attacked and detained by police during protests last year. He said that amidst the health crisis, there are signs that the government will continue to pursue its nationalist agenda.
“Authorities have already cleaned any anti-government writing or murals at our university and other protest sites.” Abdulla, 24, told TRT World. “The spread of the virus has been linked to mass gatherings, in particular one attended by Muslims from inside and outside the country. Some political leaders and most of the mainstream media - which are very pro-government - are now using terms like ‘Jihad terrorism’ and are vilifying Muslims by saying that they only brought this virus to India to try and kill people.”
Without being able to challenge this on the street, social media has become their main protest tool, but Abdulla said protesters are also using this time to strategise in preparation for when people can go back out again, as well engaging in lockdown relief work.
He said: “At the moment, many of those who were protesting are involved in relief efforts to support the thousands of migrant labourers who are being hit particularly economically as a result of the lockdown and limited government support.
"We are also trying to put out a lot of discourse on our protests, for example how it was formed and why it is important. There's a lot of people across different states who are opposed to what's happening, so we are trying to connect all these dots. We want to build a fraternity of people to push this beyond a Muslim issue to one about dignity for all citizens.”
India was one of the many countries where mass protests were playing out in the months prior to the pandemic. From Haiti to Hong Kong, Chile to Algeria, and Iraq to Lebanon - to name a few - millions of citizens unhappy with their political, social and economic realities were voicing their discontent on the streets. Yet as the pandemic puts a pause on traditional forms of protest, those involved are finding alternative ways to ensure their voices are still heard amidst the corona coverage.
In Chile, for example, the lockdown has led to home-based protests with people banging pots and pans to vent their frustrations. In Lebanon earlier last month, protesters held a small gathering in which people wore masks and stood at a distance, and now they are organising more virtual gatherings. Climate change activist Greta Thurnburg and #FridaysForFuture, meanwhile, have also been running digital strikes.
Berlin-based refugee solidarity group Seebruecke is among the organisations that have had to quickly adapt to the changing protest landscape. For the past two weekends, the group has been organising online protests calling on Europe to keep its borders open and for more support for refugees living in Greek camps.
Their first #Leavenoonebehind online demo, which included music, speeches and individual photos and videos during a two-hour livestream, attracted around 6,000 viewers and 30,000 clicks nationwide.
Emilia*, one of the digital moderators, told TRT World that the group was surprised about what it was able to achieve.
“It isn’t the same as a street protest, but the online demo was able to reach a lot of people from different cities and we could include the perspective of those who are actually suffering because of the situation. Our hashtag also trended on Twitter.” she said. “This evolving digital strategy is one we will continue with after the pandemic.”
Whether it’s further developing their digital strategies like in Lebanon, growing their networks like in India or conducting structural research like in Hong Kong, analysts agree that this period under lockdown could prove useful for anti-government protest movements.
Lucas Melgaco is a professor of Urban Criminology based in Brussels and co-editor of ‘Protests in the Information Age: Social Movements, Digital Practices and Surveillance’.
He told TRT World: “There’s already a trend of doing this, but I do think that this merging of street protests and online strategies, particularly with live-streaming, will increase after the pandemic. It gives people the chance to follow the protests from their place, and from a distance.”
Melgaco, however, said there are growing concerns around whether coronavirus emergency measures, including the banning of large gatherings and the increased use of certain surveillance tolls, will remain after the pandemic is under control, and what impact this could have on political activism.
He said: “There is a lot of discussion going on right now about data protection, privacy and governments having access to data that they normally would not have the authorisation to use. In some countries, authorities are checking the geolocation data to homes to track if people are moving too far from it, and that's somehow become acceptable. We are in a moment of exception, but if these measures remain once this pauses, they could hit political activists particularly hard, especially in countries that are not very democratic already.”
While there are some concerns about what political context protesters will return to after the crisis calms, those engaged in political struggles say they remain focused on the bigger picture.
“The media is concentrating so much on the pandemic, there is almost no space to discuss the issues that didn't just stop because of it," Emilia said. “So it's just a matter of getting attention to other issues that are also very important.”
Abdulla added: “During the pandemic we are asking the government to do more and have a better understanding of the situation. But we are at the rock bottom of having a dignified existence in India and if they are going to push their genocidal project in this crisis, we will be forced to come out in resistance. We won't wait for the pandemic to go.”