As the pandemic rages on, so do protests about it

MORE THAN 20,000 people took to the streets of the central German city of Kassel on March 20th to protest against lockdown restrictions, clashing at times with police armed with water-cannons, batons and pepper spray. The demonstrations, which were organised by the Querdenker or “lateral thinkers” movement, came after Angela Merkel, Germany's chancellor, announced an “emergency brake” on the easing of lockdown rules, following a surge in coronavirus cases.

Similar scenes have played out across more than a dozen European cities, amid a third wave of infections and a new round of lockdown restrictions. In Croatia, frustrated residents marched with banners reading “Enough tyranny” and “Give us back the flu”. In Sweden they held placards demanding “Stop dictatorship”.

The latest unrest is part of a broader trend, according to Civicus, a global network of civil-society NGOs. This time last year, fear and shock led citizens to rally around their leaders and consent to restrictions unknown outside wartime. Almost all the political protests from 2019—including those in Hong Kong, India and Chile—shuddered to a halt in early 2020. A year on, economic hardship, psychological exhaustion and scepticism about governments’ handling of the crisis are mounting. Data compiled by Civicus show that covid-related protests have been held in at least 86 countries since the start of the pandemic. When other types of protest are included—for example women’s rights, anti-corruption, and social justice—this figure rises to 130 countries in 2020-21, up from 109 in 2019-20. (The most prominent example of the latter was surely the Black Lives Matter protests, which erupted after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman last May.)

Anti-lockdown protests are not exclusive to the political right or left. Nor do they appear to be correlated with the severity of outbreaks. They have taken place in both New Zealand, which has had just 26 covid-19 deaths, and Brazil, which has suffered more than 300,000. Demonstrations have attracted people from across the political spectrum, including anti-vaxxers, covid deniers, far-right conspiracy theorists and ordinary citizens who regard lockdown restrictions as an affront to their liberty.

And yet the catalysts for such demonstrations tend to vary from place to place. In rich countries, protests have consisted mainly of citizens opposing lockdown, quarantine and curfew measures. In the Americas, Asia and the Pacific, most protests have been triggered by the economic, social and cultural impacts of the pandemic, with demonstrators demanding food and emergency relief, and for schools to close or reopen (see map).

On March 24th Mrs Merkel cancelled her plans for a hard lockdown over Easter, just one day after they were announced. Her reversal was caused in part by the vociferous backlash from the public, business leaders and churches. Whether driven by frustration over lockdowns or fears of economic ruin, as long as the pandemic rages, it is likely the covid protests will too.