A wave of mass social unrest lies on the horizon as poverty increases

Pandemic protesters may seem ridiculous, but worsening conditions will lead to justified resistance and unrest
Photo: A protest against COVID-19 measures in Vancouver, B.C., April 26, 2020. Photo by GoToVan.
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The protests springing up across the United States in response to pandemic lockdowns and restrictions are an easy target for ridicule. People claiming restrictions should be lifted because they need to get a haircut while thousands die every day is a display of callousness and stupidity beyond the pale, even by American standards.

But attributing the protests to pure stupidity fails to account for the burgeoning and justifiable social unrest resulting from the pandemic in the U.S., Canada, and all over the world.

The pandemic is causing a calamity of unemployment to rival the Great Depression.

To be clear, much of what we are seeing of the protests coming out the U.S. are images of militia members, MAGA hats, and fundamentalist Christians — all the worst elements of far-right American politics. And for many of these people, the main purpose of going to anti-lockdown protests seems to be to “own the libs,” which seemingly takes precedence over the basic biological drive of self-preservation. It is difficult to overstate the cynicism of pandemic protesters holding signs with the slogan “my body, my choice.”

None of this is worthy of our support and is rightly being called out. Let us be clear about that.

Some reasons beyond stupidity

But these are not the views of everyone taking part in the protests. The images and flashpoints of far-right stupidity are simply the focal point for an American mainstream media that is, by and large, hopelessly mired in partisanship. In American political discourse, what might be called the “left” has a singular focus to “own the Republicans” and “own Trump.” Basically nothing of what we see emanating from mainstream U.S. media attempts to explain anything.

Some people are taking part in the protests out of much more genuine and understandable concerns, as discussed by Ben Burgis in an article in Jacobin. Recent figures suggest that some 26 million Americans are unemployed, or roughly one of every six working-age people in the country. The pandemic is causing a calamity of unemployment to rival the Great Depression. And this in a country with staggering inequality, basically no social security net, and a federal government with little financial room to maneuver in providing relief.

Is uncertainty about providing for one’s family not a perfectly justifiable reason for protest?

The pandemic struck in the wake of, or in addition to, an enormous global wave of protests in 2019.

In a similar light, compare the gut reaction to news of pandemic protests in the U.S. and news of similar protests in other countries, including Germany, Poland, Nigeria, El Salvador, Italy, Russia, Myanmar, China, Spain, Indonesia, Colombia, the Philippines, France, and Lebanon.

Lebanon, for instance, had massive protests throughout 2019 related to unemployment, corruption, and economic crisis. Protesters demanded an end to a government based on power-sharing among civil war–era factions. The pandemic and the lockdown in the country have further magnified these concerns.

And remember also that the pandemic struck in the wake of, or in addition to, an enormous global wave of protests in 2019, the grievances of which have by and large not been resolved.

Looking at pandemic protests in Lebanon and in other countries, it is possible to decry them as unsafe and unhelpful while a health crisis is unfolding. But it is also easy to understand why they are happening and why they are in many ways justified.

A new era of unrest

Simply put, the pandemic is intensifying ongoing injustice and inequality all over the world. As a stark example, recent reports predict the pandemic will double the number of people facing starvation across the globe.

Here in Canada, the impacts of the pandemic may not be so extreme, but because of surging unemployment many more people will be pushed into poverty and homelessness. Many communities already reeling from injustice and inequality will see conditions get worse.

There have only been a few, very small protests in Canada specifically related to the lockdown and the pandemic (Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver), and these are perhaps closer to the variants in the U.S. But the point here is that as the pandemic unfolds over the coming months and possibly years, and as its effects are felt by everyday people for much longer than that, there will be growing unrest. And this unrest, the protests, and acts of resistance are entirely justified.

So by all means, let us call out the dangerous elements of the far right in American protests, and let us ridicule any similar tendencies here in Canada or other parts of the world.

But let us also expand the analysis beyond just pointing at stupidity to see the wave of mass social unrest on the horizon.

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