Covid-19 Puts Clampdown on Protests

The year 2019 was marked by historic protests in countries as diverse as Chile, Sudan, Iraq, Hong Kong, India, Algeria and Iran. The year 2020 saw the coronavirus pandemic stamp out all mass gatherings. So what does this portend for the democratic movements that seem to have lost their momentum and relevance in an age of Covid-19?

A recent commentary by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) theorizes that those mass protests — the culmination of a decade of grievances — will resurface once the pandemic ebbs.

In fact, “the Covid-19 crisis and its growing economic fallout have further illuminated many of the core grievances that drove mass protests over the past decade,” wrote CSIS’s Samuel Brannen. “It is important to note that the global uptick in protests in the last 10 years appears in many cases to have been rooted in the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, which exacerbated lack of economic opportunity and dissatisfaction with governments…. With social distancing and quarantine measures just beginning, divisions between workforces and households are being laid bare.”

Brannen notes that in Hong Kong, perhaps the most famous of the 2019 uprisings, a recent poll found that “70 percent of respondents credited the people of Hong Kong and not the government for the success,” suggesting that protests will resume despite the fact that the territory was relatively successful in containing the coronavirus outbreak.

In addition, many experts say the surveillance tactics that countries like China and even democratic states like South Korea employed to track the virus won’t go away just because the virus does.

“Health and law enforcement authorities are understandably eager to employ every tool at their disposal to try to hinder the virus — even as the surveillance efforts threaten to alter the precarious balance between public safety and personal privacy on a global scale,” wrote Natasha Singer and Choe-Sang Hun in March 23 article for The New York Times.

“Yet ratcheting up surveillance to combat the pandemic now could permanently open the doors to more invasive forms of snooping later. It is a lesson Americans learned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, civil liberties experts say,” they add.

Yet like the 9/11 surveillance aftermath, if the tactics used to combat coronavirus — such as analyzing location data on people’s cell phones — succeed in curbing the crisis, it remains to be seen just how loud the uproar will be over privacy concerns. Like the sweeping post-9/11 counter-terrorism measures that the U.S. implemented, people may view increased health surveillance as a necessary evil to stay safe.

After all, the debate over online privacy only erupted on a large scale after Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks and, more recently, the wave of privacy breaches at companies and social media giants like Facebook.

And we’re nowhere near coming to a resolution over how to protect privacy in an age of social media. Imagine how much coronavirus will complicate that debate.

Another wrinkle will be how successful authoritarian (and democratic) states are in using their surveillance powers to stop the outbreak. China may be fudging the number of coronavirus cases it has, but it has undeniably “flattened the curve.” If the Chinese see their country reopen for business and the number of fatalities drop to zero, while the outbreak ravages other countries like the U.S., are they likely to start questioning the government’s use of their smartphone data? Again, it’s all about the tradeoff for some people.

The problem is that the public reaction very much hinges on how effective a government’s aggressive new surveillance measures are in containing the fallout of coronavirus.

It’s a question that — like the controversy over 9/11 security reforms — will loom for a long time to come.

As Carrie Cordero and Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security put in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed: “Amid today’s global pandemic, key technology companies are in talks with federal and state governments about employing their tools against Covid-19…. All this and more, we hope, will help to stop the virus in its tracks, save lives and help Americans get back to normal. But such efforts—done in haste—also raise searching questions about the balance between privacy and public health. Decisions being made on the fly by governments, private firms and individuals will change the country’s digital social contract for years to come.”

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