Coronavirus: Double-Edged Sword for the Climate

*Quick note to my amazing readers πŸ™‚ Unlike blog updates, notifications of when I update the essential daily headlines on my site won’t come to your inbox, but if you are interested in the headlines that I think are important, you can either follow my blog since I’ll post updates on the big ones, or just check back on my site since I try to refresh them regularly πŸ™‚ I’ll also try to include a few lighthearted posts here and there to take a break from the corona overload. In the meantime, back to the blogging:

It’s nearly impossible to keep up with all the head-spinning ways that coronavirus has upended our world, but one development that’s flown relatively under the radar has been the postponement of the U.N. climate summit in Glasgow that was set for November 2020 (and will now be held next spring).

This would’ve been the 26th U.N. climate change conference (known as COP26), with the apogee taking place in 2015 when the landmark Paris agreement was hashed out and then signed by nearly 190 countries that pledged to cut their greenhouse gas emissions.

But as Amy Harder of Axios reported, “This isn’t just another major convention scuttled by coronavirus. This is a make-or-break moment as countries face pressure to increase their ambitions to tackle climate change,” she wrote on April 1. “The Glasgow summit is meant to be where nations present the first batch of more ambitious plans, as called for every five years in the 2015 deal.”

Many scientists say more ambitious plans are long overdue because countries are falling woefully behind on meeting their emissions targets. Those targets, which are voluntary, were designed with the goal of limiting planetary global warming to no more 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Instead, the U.N. conceded late last year that the world is all but assured to blow right past the “point of no return” target. In fact, global greenhouse gas emissions reached a record high in 2019, a year that capped off the hottest decade ever recorded on the planet.

Despite increasing evidence of more extreme weather patterns fueled by climate change, countries failed to make headway on the issue at last year’s climate talks, in part because of opposition to stronger targets by countries such as India, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Russia.

And of course the enormous elephant in the room is the United States β€” the second-largest emitter β€” which under President Trump withdrew from the Paris accord, a huge blow to the global effort to combat climate change.

While it doesn’t look likely that governments will make the drastic emissions cuts that scientists say are necessary to avoid catastrophic warning, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked hopes that the widespread lockdowns will reduce emissions on their own.

And so far they have. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects a 7.5% drop in fossil fuel emissions for 2020 β€” which would be the biggest cut in U.S. energy emissions since at least 1990, according to a recent AP report. In addition, satellite imagery from the European Space Agency has shown a stunning drop in air pollution around the world.

In fact, Marshall Burke, a researcher from Stanford University, calculated that improvements in air quality in China may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under 5 years old and 73,000 adults over 70, according to a March 12 article in Politico. The article also noted that even more conservative estimates would put the number of lives saved at roughly 20 times the number of deaths from the virus directly.

Some environmentalists also hope that rare sightings of swans floating in the once-muddy canals of Venice will stir a greater awareness of what nature can look like if people put more effort into preserving it.

But most experts say these trends are only temporary. After all, the current situation is untenable: Factories are empties, planes are idle and shops are closed. Once the pandemic ebbs, the priority will understandably be getting back to business. People’s livelihoods are on the line, so jobs will inherently take precedence over longer-term challenges like climate change. And if stimulus packages enacted by countries such as China rely on coal-heavy industrial output, emissions will soar once again.

In that sense, it’s probably good that COP26 was delayed, to give governments time to respond to the pandemic before hopefully refocusing their attention on the simmering climate crisis.

That crisis has become more and more tangible as people experience extreme weather patterns firsthand, whether it’s the recent wildfires in Australia and California, epic heatwaves in India or increasingly ferocious storms like Hurricane Maria. Major corporations like Amazon and even ExxonMobil have all pledged to cut emissions, and there’s been a groundswell of support, particularly among the young, for more aggressive government action on climate change.

But leaders at COP26 will confront the same basic dilemma that has stymied action for years: Real change requires real sacrifice. While renewables like wind and solar are taking major leaps forward, the world is still overwhelmingly fueled by coal. That’s an inescapable fact.

As Australian Ambassador Arthur Sinodinos told me in my recent cover profile of him, “I think one of the things we have to be upfront with people about is that there are costs of change. Yes, there are costs of not changing, but often what happens in politics, people tend to say, β€˜Don’t worry, the cost isn’t too much.’ You can’t deal with the public like that. You’ve got to give the public the facts and let them make up their own mind.”

And it’s hard for politicians to make the case to the public that bearing the pain now will save us more pain in the long run. Voters think short term, not long term. But perhaps coronavirus, which revealed the importance of preparing for long-term threats, will make that case easier to sell.

Still, it’s not always easy for people to connect the complex dots of how a threat like climate change amplifies other threats β€” including the spread of infectious diseases like Covid-19. As Greenpeace noted in an April 10 article, “about 75% of all emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic β€” meaning they come from animals. These include, among others, SARS, H5N1 avian flu, and the H1N1 influenza virus. An increasing number of animal carriers of diseases are changing their behaviour and migrating to new areas due to climate change and habitat loss.”

That doesn’t exactly make for a catchy political soundbite though. And that gets to the biggest wild card in the coming climate debate: Trump. Most people don’t realize that the U.S. has not technically dropped out of the Paris climate agreement. Under the rules, the formal withdrawal process is not finalized until Nov. 4, 2020 β€” one day after the U.S. presidential election. Needless to say, the question of whether the U.S. officially quits the Paris agreement or rejoins it will be dictated by who wins on Nov. 3.

So it could be America’s political storm, more than any force of nature, that determines the next chapter of our planet’s climate evolution.

How Do I Feel About the Bern?

So I guess it’s time for a little personal political opinion here (after all, this is a blog). Prerequisite disclosure: These are obviously my views and not those of The Washington Diplomat, whose editorial I am beyond proud of because it is meticulously accurate and fair.

That gets to a bit of a tangent here: I once heard that the former owner of a major newspaper used to tell his reporters that they have no opinions. They’re always neutral. Like robots.

In theory, this makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, because of the #FakeNews epidemic, many people have no clue just how much the importance of being fair, impartial and accurate is drilled into journalists from the start. At the University of Maryland, for example, there was a required introductory class all of us journalism majors had to take where if we misspelled someone’s name or made a factual error, we got one strike. If we got three strikes, we flunked the class right there on the spot and were asked to literally walk out and leave the classroom. Let me tell you, after that kind of humiliating walkout (I think like 90% of students failed that class at least once), you will forever quadruple-check your facts and spellings.

So of course journalists need to be careful when veering away from impartiality into the realm of expressing opinions. At the same time, the notion that reporters don’t have opinions is absurd (in my opinion ;)) After all, you’re digging deep into a subject. You’re becoming a de facto expert on it. It’s only human and natural to form an opinion on it.

The key is to openly recognize that opinion and then constantly ask yourself if it’s coloring your work. For example, responsible journalists routinely ask themselves: “Am I allowing my bias of this person keep me from seeking out commentary from people who support him?”

Is it a perfect process? No. Journalists are human. But it occurs much more regularly and rigorously among “mainstream” journalists than people give them credit for. There will always be streaks of bias. But you’ll have a tough time finding outright lies in establishment media. I dare anyone to pick a New York Times article and find a blatant lie that has no grounding in fact or truth whatsoever. You’ll have a hard time. Bias? Maybe, or even probably. Blatant “falsehood” (i.e. flat-out lie). No. The same can’t be said of other media outlets that shall remain nameless.

Sooooo long intro short, that’s the reasoning behind my opinion of opinions in my industry. With that said, here’s my take on Bernie Sanders (it was originally supposed to be quick, but anyone who knows me won’t be surprised that this turned out to be wayyy longer):

He introduced revolutionary ideas and tapped into a real groundswell of legitimate frustration. At the end of the day, though, he’s a spoiler. Revolutionary is not the same as realistic, and lofty ideas mean nothing if you can’t win and actually implement them.

Now, would Hillary have won if Bernie hadn’t stolen whatever thunder she originally had? Who knows. Trump did lose the popular vote by a sizable margin and won the electoral vote by a slim margin (when you look at the numbers in local districts that tipped the larger state-wide scale). And Hillary was a lightening rod for many people (she did have her share of flaws, although some people’s hatred of her wasn’t grounded in any sort of reality).

So we’ll never know the woulda, coulda, shoulda of 2016. But Bernie definitely would’ve been the spoiler if he had stayed this time around β€” and I suspect the only reason he finally dropped out was because of the unusual circumstances (i.e. coronavirus). Otherwise he would’ve contested this to the bitter end, dividing the party and causing a needless distraction from the Democrats’ ultimate goal: Unseating the president.

Coronavirus has turned everything upside down. But assuming the pandemic hadn’t of happened, Bernie would’ve simply chipped away at Biden over the summer β€” slowly eating away at any chance that Biden had to steer the conversation towards what’s really at stake: Whether he’s the person who should replace Trump. After Super Tuesday, it was obvious Bernie was not going to be that person, but whether out of vanity, obstinacy or a true conviction in his cause, Bernie would’ve carried on as the de facto spoiler who was sabotaging his own party’s chances, regardless whether he saw himself in that light.

You also can’t talk about Bernie without talking about the age divide. He clearly spoke for many young people who feel their voices have been drowned out by the establishment β€” and that’s admirable. Trump did the same thing with a wide swathe of older voters. Bernie’s ideas for universal health care and his calls to fundamentally rethink globalization and capitalism (which in many ways mirror Trump’s) reflect a justifiable need to do just that β€” rethink our long-held assumptions.

But if you want real change, you have to be realistic. Guess what? I wanted to be an actress/singer/supermodel when I grew up. Then I got real. Otherwise I’d probably be singing on a street corner homeless.

I would love for each and every Americans to have access to free, high-quality health care through a single payer system. I’d love for the bloated and ineffective American health care system to look more like Denmark’s (and I could write an entire book on how breathtakingly bone-headed our system is). After all, no one in the richest nation in the world should go bankrupt and lose their job because they broke an ankle. Everyone should view this as a national disgrace.

But I also recognize that the ship has sailed, we’re not Denmark, and we have to craft distinctly American solutions to address distinctly American problems. This requires realism, moderation and compromise β€” all things that, especially among young Bernie supporters, are seen as antithetical to change, when in fact they’re essential. (The same could certainly be said of hard-core Trump supporters).

Guess what? Ain’t no one giving up a good private insurance plan to gamble their health on an uncertain government-run system where they’re scared they’ll have to compete for a doctor’s appointment (they wouldn’t but the transition would be long and painful). Realistically, this country is not ready to make that leap, not now or possibly ever.

BUT does that mean we can’t improve health care to ensure everyone has access? Of course not. It’s not one way or bust. There is ALWAYS a middle ground β€” something that gets lost when you have politicians perched on a high horse on one extreme side of the aisle or the other.

Obamacare isn’t perfect, but at its heart, it’s a Republican, market-oriented solution to health care access (ask Mitt Romney). I believe that if more Republican governors hadn’t instantly rejected it out of hand (and Republicans in Congress had bothered to at least come to the negotiating table instead of shunning the debate altogether), it could’ve been a real game-changer for American health care (even though in many ways it still is).

But the premise of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) is based on all 50 states participating to spread out risk so that an insurance exchange marketplace makes fiscal sense for insurance companies. If half the states don’t participate, you get a broken marketplace. And then you had Republican governors β€” whose people disproportionately need and would benefit from Medicare β€” automatically rejecting free Medicare from the Feds because they didn’t like Washington and who was running it. All I’ll say here is that principles shouldn’t punish the people you’ve been hired to help (even when some of those people slam Obamacare while at the same time screaming for the government not to touch their ACA benefits).

Anyway, the point is that political posturing and extremism don’t get anyone anywhere, and both voters and politicians need to start getting real β€” something that seems to be eluding today’s far-left progressives.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe it was Republicans under the Obama administration who perfected the art of obstinacy by refusing to even countenance working with the other side (see Obamacare). Civility and compromise were being eroded for years by both parties, but they took a clear nosedive with the GOP opposition to anything and everything Obama. Trump then put the nail in the coffin on both. He solidified the trend where “moderate” has now become a dirty word, compromise means surrender, lies are the norm, and experience and expertise are seen as vices, not virtues.

But Bernie’s isn’t blameless either, nor are his supporters. Kudos to them for refocusing attention on absolutely critical issues like health care, student loan debt, workers’ rights and climate change. But their my-way-or-the-highway idealism was self-defeating.

Again, perhaps this is a matter of age. I’m older and realize that promising to change the world means nothing if you can’t win office. And rallying young progressives to vote in states that will fall into the blue column anyway isn’t a winning strategy. Until you get rid of the electoral college, you need to plan for how to win over swing states β€” and threatening to eliminate popular private health care plans isn’t exactly the way into a moderate’s heart.

A recent poll showed that 15% of Bernie supporters would vote for Trump rather than Biden. Look, if you support Trump’s platform, by all means, vote for him. If you’re doing it because you’re upset your guy didn’t win and you’re throwing a tantrum, then you’re proving how self-defeating and naive your politics are.

Interestingly, if you take a careful look at Joe Biden’s campaign blueprint, it’s surprisingly progressive. And if you look at Bernie’s congressional record, it’s surprisingly pragmatic. Both men realized that to get things done, you have to be realistic and that if you want to change the system, you have to work within it.

Trump obviously has no desire to do anything with the system but bash it. On the one hand, it’s understandable. He wasn’t voted into office because he was part of the establishment. But his prideful disdain to learn anything about how government works has hurt him in the long run.

Coronavirus obviously has upended everything, and Trump’s legacy very much hinges on how well he handles the current crisis.

But before that, let’s ask ourselves what has he personally accomplished (when you look past the daily headlines of tweets and tantrums and #FakeNews)? Other than launching a trade war with China (and there are both pros and cons to his China policy), Trump himself doesn’t really have tangible legislative accomplishments. One of the most enduring legacies of his administration will be the wave of conservative judges installed under his tenure. But that was all Mitch McConnell, not Trump. Trump’s ballyhooed budget cuts? Congress has batted them down at every turn and almost none have materialized. The one thing congressional Republicans did do is enact major tax reform that piled onto the national debt (which the party only seems oddly obsessed with when the other party is in power). Will tax reform ultimately help anyone other than large corporations? The evidence so far is slim.

Beyond that, what legislative record does Trump have that he himself spearheaded? Not much. To be sure, some of that is because of Democratic opposition, but Trump missed so many golden opportunities. If he’d been consistent in what he actually wanted and made an effort to talk to Democrats, he had a real chance at passing a significant infrastructure bill and sweeping gun reform.

If he had tried to learn a smidge about how the meat-grinder of legislating actually works, he could’ve pushed a lot more GOP priorities through Congress during the first two years of his administration. He had pull establishment figures like McConnell didn’t, but he wasn’t focused enough to flex it. He also didn’t bother to learn about legislating in part because of the belief that he already knows everything anyway, but also because of the attitude that has infected a growing number of extreme voters on both the left and right: The system is bad so why even deal with it?

Trump wanted to throw the bums out and clean up the swamp. Instead he brought on a bunch of billionaires tainted by allegations of all sorts of swampy behavior. In the annals of history, the levels of unabashed corruption and personal enrichment under this president will be one for the record books.

Likewise, many die-hard Bernie fans are itching to throw the bums out. I get it. Politics is always in need of a healthy infusion of fresh blood. But we still need the bums. We still need the people who have spent a lifetime dedicated to figuring out how the system works and making it work to their advantage. We still need the “establishment” types like Biden and his Senate Republican counterparts who spent years haggling and compromising because they realized that getting something is better than getting nothing. Ask McConnell. He gets it.

Experience in politics is, in my opinion, a good thing, not some kind of Scarlett letter. When George W. Bush won the presidency, many Americans said they voted for him because he’s the kind of guy they could picture having a beer with.

Yeah, that’s great and all, but would you trust your kids’ college fund or your retirement savings with an investment planner who had no actual experience in investing? All because you could have a beer with him and the other guys had investment experience? Probably not. When you vote in a guy with no political experience, you get an Iraq War.

Or you get a lot of hot air β€” largely in the form of a steady stream of incoherent and untruthful Tweets β€” while squandering a prime opportunity to form and enact an actual legislative agenda.

Bernie, of course, had a bold agenda. But he had not clear path to enact it.

I’ve always believed that change is perfectly possible without a wholesale revolution. Experience, civility, compromise, moderation are long-lost art form, and that’s self-destructive. They get things done β€” just not in a splashy way that fits with today’s era of polarized social media and insta-headlines.

We are living in a time of profound change β€” and problems. Whatever happens in November (and anyone who tells you they know what will happen is lying to you and themselves), I hope we wind up with a leader who has a basic grasp of those problems. Or who is humble enough to attempt to understand them. Who doesn’t spin fanciful lies and conspiracy theories that only sow division and hate. Who’s upfront about the sacrifices and costs required to tackle these problems. Who’s experienced in working the system and who’s level-headed enough to reach out to the other side to fix our problems.

As to whether that hope turns into reality β€” well, let’s just say, no matter what happens, I’ll still have plenty to write about in future blogs πŸ˜‰

Bridging the Mask Divide

It was one of the more striking patterns I noticed as coronavirus spread around the globe: In some countries, you rarely saw a person walking around outside without a mask covering their faces. In other countries, you rarely someone with it.

Up until recently, the United States belonged in that latter category. But after months of insisting masks weren’t necessary for the general public, the Trump administration reversed course last week and recommended that the public wear cloth masks to slow the spread of the virus.

To some experts, it was an overdue course correction. Masks have long been widely worn throughout East Asia to limit the spread of viruses such as the flu. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, South Korea launched an aggressive campaign to regularly get masks out to each of its 51 million inhabitants. More recently, countries such as the Czech Republic and Slovakia have mandated that people wear masks when they go outside.

Some studies have shown that masks may provide the user with a modicum of protection. At a minimum, they’re better than nothing. More importantly, however, masks may be effective in protecting other people if the user is asymptomatic β€” and according to some estimates, up to 20% of people with coronavirus exhibit mild to no symptoms β€” because masks have been shown to prevent the spread of droplets that infect others.

But the Trump administration had good reason for not mandating the widespread use of masks: The country was (and still is) woefully short on them, leaving front-line medical workers scrambling for protection. If the public began hoarding surgical masks, it could leave doctors and nurses even more vulnerable to the virus.

But the problem is that this wasn’t always the reasoning given by officials. For example, Surgeon General Jerome Adams warned that, “You can increase your risk of getting it by wearing a mask if you are not a health care provider.”

Why? Because theoretically you might be more likely to touch your face to adjust the mask. Other officials warned that people with masks may let their guards down and not adhere to other precautionary measures like social distancing.

While those concerns are valid, they also caused confusion among people who would see citizens of other countries openly wearing masks in public (The Atlantic has a great piece on the debate over masks here).

In hindsight, it would’ve been better if the administration had made it clear that the main reason for not recommending masks for the general public was to protect medical workers. It also could’ve easily advised people to consider cloth masks much sooner.

[UPDATE: According to a scoop from Axios, “Top Trump administration officials had been developing a plan to give cloth masks to huge numbers of Americans, but the idea lost traction amid heavy internal skepticism.”

On the one hand, at least that shows they recognized the usefulness of cloth masks. On the other, it also shows that the decision to announce their usefulness could’ve been done sooner. But the opposition to the idea of giving out cloth masks to Americans is understandable given the sheer logistics of such a massive endeavor.]

After all, the recent recommendation has not caused a run on masks. Instead, it’s resulted in people getting pretty creative when it comes to fashioning their do-it-yourself masks. (Who knew sewing would pay off in a pandemic?)

Granted, there has been a lot of confusion about what kind of homemade masks are most effective (The Washington Post has a good breakdown here). There’s no hard proof on what works best and experts still fear that DIY masks may give people a false sense of security.

But those fears overlook the growing consensus that even homemade fabric masks can contribute to slowing the rate of transmission.

There’s obviously still so much we don’t know about coronavirus, and we’ll be studying aspects of the pandemic β€” including the use of masks β€” for years to come.

Perhaps the bigger takeaway here is rethinking the cultural taboo in the West associated with wearing masks in public. In East Asia, wearing a mask when you’re sick is considered a courtesy and an admirable trait. It’s also just common sense that if you want to protect yourself from viruses, you cover your face.

Maybe if we ever reach the point where we’re better prepared with a copious supply of surgical masks for the next inevitable health crisis, we can re-examine our aversion to masks and the social stigma attached to wearing them in public. If anything, coronavirus has been a powerful reminder that we need to re-examine our assumptions and complacency when it comes to public health.

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 β€” the culmination of a decade of grievances β€” 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 β€” 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 β€” such as analyzing location data on people’s cell phones β€” 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 β€” like the controversy over 9/11 security reforms β€” 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 effortsβ€”done in hasteβ€”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.”

Covid-19 Opportunity in Algeria?

There was an interesting recent article by Dr. Vish Sakthivel for the Middle East Institute (MEI) exploring whether the Hirak social movement that has consumed the streets of Algeria over the last year could β€” with the right strategy β€” can take advantage of the coronavirus lockdown to better organize itself and ultimately assert more power in the beleaguered North African nation.

Protests erupted after the ailing president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, tried to run for a fifth term after 20 years in office. Bouteflika, who shepherded Algeria through a bloody civil war, was ousted and the military elite took power. While the ruling government has made efforts to crack down on corruption, protesters say it still represents the old guard and needs to be completely chucked out.

But the protest movement has largely remained rudderless because of a lack of leadership and direction. Sakthivel, a nonresident senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, argues that the coronavirus pandemic, which has put a stop to the weekly street protests, could provide a political opening for the activists to regroup and strengthen their cause.

“With physical space unavailable for now, activists are taking to new domains, adapting established modes of action in the form of web- and balcony-based protests, dish-banging from windows, and doubling-down on social media communiques, with the intention of resuming physical occupation of the streets as quickly as possible,” Sakthivel wrote.

I doubt pot-banging and plans for more protests will accomplish much in the near term. To effect real change, it seems as if the protesters will need to establish a hierarchy and clear leadership that can engage the government in dialogue β€” much like Sudanese protesters did after the ouster of the country’s longtime president, Omar al-Bashir.

And if the regime fails to prepare for the pandemic, resulting in a surge of cases, the chaos could lend momentum to the Hirak movement β€” but only if it seized the moment by formulating a clear set of demands and plans for a democratic transition.

Protests are critical. But at some point, plans are even more critical.