The anti-lockdown protests that have garnered so much attention in the United States in recent weeks may seem like a uniquely American phenomenon. Wired’s Emma Grey Ellis called them an “American mess,” describing them as “a modern permutation of an identity crisis with roots very deep in America’s individualist history.”
The protests have been compared to other American political movements, from Trump rallies to the rise of the Tea Party in 2009, which took its own name from the 1773 Boston Tea Party, a seminal event in US history that helped spark the American Revolution and came to symbolize the fundamental American trait of rejection of tyranny and government overreach.
But while the anti-lockdown protests that have taken place in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, Minnesota, North Carolina, Utah, and elsewhere certainly have a distinctly American flavor, they are far from unique to America. Similar protests have taken place almost everywhere you look around the world.
Just this month alone, thousands of people from Latin America to Europe have demonstrated against aggressive government policies intended to curb the coronavirus outbreak. They don’t perfectly mirror the protests in the US, but there are some striking similarities.
Activists in Michigan displayed anti-Semitic signs and wore swastikas outside the state capitol during an anti-lockdown protest, while neo-Nazis joined similar demonstrations in some of Germany’s major cities. President Donald Trump encourages Americans to push for the reopening of their state while his Brazilian counterpart, President Jair Bolsonaro, personally greets anti-lockdown protestors.
Demonstrators in the US have shown up to rallies with guns, while food shortages during the lockdown in Chile have citizens clashing with police. And as anti-vaxxers in the US use the crisis to push their agenda, like-minded folks in the UK are doing the same thing.
Experts tell me there is no direct connection among these rallies, other than the fact that the grievances over what lockdowns mean for freedom and quality of life are being felt beyond America’s shores.
The coronavirus and how governments respond to it, then, have created global fault lines between those who want government to provide a sense of normalcy and those who want to mitigate Covid-19’s lethal risks. And that means one troubling consequence: No matter how bad the crisis gets, there will surely be a vocal group pushing against any measures to quash it.
That almost assuredly will make any nation’s coronavirus recovery harder.
“These protests have become supercharged”
David Wong, a protests expert in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC, told me that the protests we’re seeing fall into two general categories.
The first focuses on how governments are implementing anti-coronavirus measures, namely whether or not there’s a lockdown and how long it’ll last. In other words, they’re about freedom.
“More countries are starting to get a grip on the health care response,” Wong said, meaning the number of countries imposing lockdowns and angering parts of their populations keeps growing. And with some of those countries seeing a drop in coronavirus cases because of those impositions, Wong said, “It gets easier for protesters to say, ‘Why do we need restrictions now?’”
A second category revolves around the economic devastation caused by those lockdowns. As a country’s economy tanks and its government has limited resources earmarked for coronavirus work, the amount of money for providing the most vulnerable populations with food or social welfare dwindles. This sends hungry and disenfranchised citizens into the street to express their frustrations.
Some of these protests are continuations from 2019, when the world saw more demonstrations than any other time in recent history. Many of those rallies were about governments failing to provide basic services for people, or authorities infringing on the rights of the citizenry.
Those issues echo in the coronavirus era, too, as lockdowns hit upon these exact themes. Some who don’t want to go outside to demonstrate during the pandemic are still discussing these same matters on social media, and in one particular Russian case, a navigation app.
But now that the coronavirus has hit every aspect of human life, “These protests have become supercharged,” Wong said.
That becomes evident when you look at them.
Coronavirus protests are a global phenomenon
Last weekend saw thousands take to the streets of Germany’s main urban areas, including the capital, Berlin, to demonstrate against the country’s shutdown.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has received high marks for her government’s response to the coronavirus, keeping the number of confirmed deaths relatively low despite a high number of infections. Part of her success has been the social distancing measures she imposed, which will remain in force until June 5. Still, activists have come out to protest those measures every Saturday — and each week, the demonstrations attract a more and more extreme audience.
On May 16, German intelligence officials saw demonstrators wearing yellow stars — the symbol Jews were forced to wear to identify themselves under the Nazi regime — as well as anti-Semitic banners. Germany’s federal police believes these extremist groups are taking advantage of the chaos to further their own agenda.
But what seems to animate most of the protestors is actually Germany’s success at handling the coronavirus. Since the country is doing well, some don’t see the need to keep the lockdown going.
“They told us this virus was so dangerous that we had to give up all our democratic freedoms,” Sabine Martin, a mother of two who joined her third consecutive protest in Berlin, told the New York Times on Monday. “But we are no fools: Our hospitals are half empty.”
“I’m not afraid of this virus,” she continued. “I’m afraid of the recession.”
Small protests against the lockdown also sprang up around the UK last weekend. But despite their size, the rallies gained some notoriety over the number of vaccine opponents in attendance. Signs held aloft in London’s Hyde Park were emblazoned with such slogans as “anti-vax deserves a voice” and “freedom over fear.”
Perhaps the most famous demonstrator was Piers Corbyn, the brother of former Labour Party chief Jeremy Corbyn. As police arrested him and 18 others, Piers claimed that “vaccination is not necessary” and espoused the conspiracy theory that the 5G towers the country is installing to speed up mobile services “enhances anyone who’s got illness from Covid, so they work together.”
Piers Corbyn isn’t alone in this view, as nearly 80 towers in the country have been attacked in misguided attempts to stop Covid-19’s spread.
The situation isn’t much better in Latin America, where Bolsonaro — just like Trump — cheers on activists who believe the coronavirus is no big deal and who oppose the strict lockdown measures many state governors in Brazil have implemented. “Unemployment, hunger and misery will be the future of those who support the tyranny of total isolation,” he recently tweeted.
This past Sunday, Bolsonaro joined anti-lockdown protestors outside his offices in Brasilia, the nation’s capital. He ended up taking pictures with some of the demonstrators, and later that day did push-ups with men dressed in military attire.
His appearances at these rallies are meant to not only bolster his populist support but also continue his oft-repeated claim that concerns about the coronavirus are overwrought.
“Above all [people] want freedom, they want democracy, they want respect,” he recently said in an online video.
In nearby Chile, protestors don’t like the lockdowns either, but they’re primarily concerned about the lack of food available to them. On Monday, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the capital, Santiago, saw activists throw rocks at police and burn piles of wood as hunger spiked.
“The last weeks we have had a great demand from neighbors for food,” Sadi Melo, mayor of the El Bosque neighborhood and a member of the opposition Socialist Party, told local radio station BioBio. “We are in a very complex situation of hunger and lack of work.”
In response, local officials said they distributed 2,000 aid packages, but noted it would not be enough to solve the problem. That prompted Chilean President Sebastián Piñera to promise in a nationally televised addressed that his administration would get 2.5 million baskets of food to those who need it.
“We will prioritize the most vulnerable families,” he said.
Put together, the worldwide protests aren’t a united effort. While they mainly tackle lockdowns, they’re also about people’s struggles with the policies, and they provide an opportunity for others to promote their own ideologies. Such a diverse set of grievances will make it much more difficult for governments to satisfy everyone.