In the past few years, the international scene has been widely dominated by large-scale social movements and protests. Worldwide, people have organized to demand justice, change or voice opposition against political decisions. In this article, we analyze how the the Coronavirus pandemic had a significant impact on collective action, social mobility and crisis resolution.
From the Arab Spring of 2011 to protests against austerity in Southern Europe and waves of social unrest against police violence, abuse and racism, the international scene has been widely dominated by large-scale social movements and protests in the past few decades. Worldwide, people organize themselves, striving for change, demanding justice, or going against governmental decisions. Protest movements are surging throughout the world and more often than not dominate international media headlines. Yet, a life changing historical event such as the Coronavirus pandemic is going to have significant effects on collective action, social mobility and crisis resolution. To understand the impact of COVID-19, the first question must be what motivates people to mobilize and demand change. Next, it is critical to elucidate the trends in protesting up to the beginning of the latest global pandemic. Finally, a data-based analysis will show how protests have changed following the pandemic (and the global response to it) and hopefully how they will evolve in the future.
Why Take to the Streets?
It is easy to miss the bigger picture if someone focuses solely on triggers of protests, which differ significantly across countries and depending on the protest being considered. On the one hand, we often observe protests due to austerity measures, such as increases in the price of public services, cuts in public sector employment or fuel price hikes. On the other hand, protests have also been triggered by more strictly political issues, like election fraud or power struggles during periods of political transition. And though these triggers may surely serve as sparks that ignite the powder keg in any country, they tell us little about the fuel and the conditions needed to spread and sustain the fire.
The theory of collective political action is one of the few testable theories with high explanatory power in the social sciences. Mancur Olson’s theory of collective action was advanced in his 1977 book The Logic of Collective Action and has managed to magnetize political scientists ever since. Olson tries to answer the same question as this article: why do people participate in protests and similar activities in the first place? Emotional or psychological approaches are unsatisfactory, and economic interpretations lack the personal element that helps us decipher human activity, but the theory of collective action is a marriage between the two. Whereas Olson argues that any group attempting to provide a public good has troubles in doing so efficiently, for the purposes of this analysis we will argue that the collectivity wishes to have access to a certain amount of public goods and it is their underprovision or absence that prompts social mobility.
If one takes a closer look at protests and social movement incidents over the past twenty years, one observes that what mobilizes people are public goods. These goods are made available to all by the government and characterized by nonrivalry and nonexcludability. This means that they don’t dwindle in supply as more people consume them and that no citizen can be excluded from their consumption. In the Arab Spring, people demanded democracy, good governance and the end of corruption. In the 2011 Greek austerity protests, demonstrators asked for improvements in the economic condition they were facing. In the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, the fight against racial injustice and discrimination was the center issue. Finally, during the 2020 climate strikes and Fridays For Future protests, people of all ages demanded that governments no longer turned a blind eye on climate change. In all of these instances, the single individual has only a negligible impact to increase the availability of the public good. People may think that it is of no avail to participate, because the production of the public good cannot be influenced by the participation of a single individual, who incurs a cost simply by deciding to participate. And though it may seem that public goods provision isn’t the driving factor behind social mobility, it actually plays a crucial role in the mobilization of people towards a common aim.
What will drive people to organize is a particularly salient issue, such as the case of public goods, or a situation where the participation of a single individual prompts a revolutionary cascade, to which a large majority is attracted in the end. This was the case in the 2011 Arab uprisings, sparked by the self-immolation of a Tunisian citizen in a desperate outcry against police corruption and violence. The gathering of a small number of people turned into a large-scale movement that swept through the Maghreb, prompting regime change. When people regard themselves as influential even in a large group, discontent with the extent to which a public good is provided is an incentive for protest participation. The situation becomes more severe when resource availability decreases. In areas where resources are scarce, protests are often ignited as a response to lack of resource mobilization and fair dissemination of public goods. Groups, demanding greater access to or control of said resources, may initiate small-scale calls for greater control of these goods, which in turn may prompt some larger-scale public action.
It becomes evident, therefore, that social movements are deeply rooted in the provision of public goods and the realization that people will always demand fair access to them. Democracy, justice and a well-functioning economy without exploitation are integral elements of healthy societies, which, if absent, can prompt collective action and upturn any status quo, fragile or not. This is not to say that democracy itself is a public good (although it may be seen by some as such), but rather that a democracy is often synonymous with a more extensive provision of public goods. Autocracies are, instead, more reliant on the distribution of private goods to their cronies, given the fact that institutions in autocratic countries allow leaders to stay in power by simply pleasing a select few. Thus, a decrease in democracy is often not only paired with, but even a result of, a decrease in the provision of public goods. This realization comes also due to the fact that these public goods are most of the time provided exclusively by democracies, as is the case with justice, human rights and freedom. Hence, the role of public goods as drivers of protests and revolutionary cascades becomes clearer once we take into consideration the fact that they are present in all types of democracies.
These observations are included in the Freedom House annual reports, which have recorded a steady decline in democratic regimes throughout the past decade. More specifically, they have noted that 2018 was the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, spanning across a variety of regions and countries. The underprovision or even absence of democracy as a public good allows people to reach their ‘revolutionary thresholds’ and demand change in governance. The recently published Freedom House report mentioned that 2020 is the 14th consecutive year of deterioration in civil rights and liberties. The phenomenon isn’t restricted only to typically authoritarian regimes, like China or Russia; it has started spreading across European states, like Hungary and Poland, and in Asian and Latin American countries, like India and Venezuela. The eruption of mass protests across a variety of political environments, at different times and under different circumstances, underscores the universal desire for good governance, democratic principles and respect of civil liberties. And because of the intensification of the ethical decay of democratic powers and the unchecked brutality of authoritarian regimes, calls for better governance are louder than ever.
Democracy and Protests, the Story of Unrest in the Past Decade
The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED), represented in the graph below, shows that protests have increased significantly over the past decade. It should be noted that ACLED focuses on countries in Asia, Latin America and Africa, and thus lacks data points in Europe, the United States and Oceania. However, checking the data against other databases such as the Mass Mobilization Report, it can be seen that the global trends are unaltered by the addition of those other geographic locations. We have chosen to depict the ACLED data as it is the most complete and is often referenced in academic papers on the topic. The year 2019 has been called by many “the year of protests”. This trend can be attributed to a number of causes but the most evident one is related to what is, as said up to this point, the root cause of any protest: public goods. Public goods are most provided by democracies and, according to a Freedom House report, democracies are certainly declining. In fact, the share of “Free” countries has declined by 3% over the past 10 years and, every year since 2006, there have been more countries with net declines in freedom scores than countries with net gains. The score given to countries takes into account the electoral process, political pluralism and participation, the functioning of the government, civil liberties, associational and organizational rights, rule of law and personal autonomy and individual rights. All the indicators are crucial signs of the amount of public goods available in the country and a drop in these would certainly lead to additional anger and civil unrest.
The very same report cites protests as relevant methods in the fight against the reductions of freedom, but with ambiguous results in terms of achievement of rights. The example of Hong Kong’s protests is indicative of how protests to achieve more public goods may actually bring about a lower freedom score as a result of the subsequent repression and limitations. This begs the question of whether a causal link can be established between a lack of democracy, and thus of public goods, and protests. The opposite could be true, too, with the most recent example of the Black Lives Matter protests showing how quickly certain rights, including the rights to life, can be curtailed.
However, claiming that the legal way to express discontent in any functioning society leads to a decrease in the democratic score of a country is a slippery slope to walk down. If any country responds by removing rights to a peaceful protest, chances are they are not a completely free democracy to start with. Furthermore, most protests of the past decade can be logically connected to a recent curtailment of certain crucial rights to the population, which have thus led them to take to the streets, with the most recent example being the abortion protests in Poland.
Thus, the trend of the past decade has been one of democratic decline and subsequent rise in protests, as populations have become more conscious of their bargaining power when acting as one.
How Covid-19 Is Sowing the Seeds for Future Protests
Having established why people protest and having seen the evident trend in the rise of protests, three questions must be asked in order to further understand the future of civil unrest, especially in light of the current pandemic: 1) How has COVID-19 altered, if at all, the trend seen up to now, 2) Has this change been driven by pandemic-related protests, or just an exacerbation of past trends, and 3) What will happen to protests once the pandemic is over?
The first question is rather easy to answer at face value: COVID-19 has inevitably changed not only protests themselves, but also the way people protest. One need not look past stay-at-home restrictions and limitations on social gatherings to see that protesting has become more difficult and less popular in the space of a few months. However, the change is not so superficial when looking at the data. The graph is illustrative: the dip immediately at the beginning of the pandemic clearly signals the initial limitations on movement and gatherings, but the trend resumes almost immediately. In fact, the spikes in the period from August to November 2020 surpass pre-pandemic levels. This new spike can be attributed to a number of factors. The first and most obvious are protests related to the pandemic itself, with demonstrations against new lockdowns and regulations becoming increasingly popular, especially during the second wave.
Another factor can be the recent emergence of relevant social issues that fall in line with the trends up to this point. In general, this can be explained by the acknowledgement of a lack or complete removal of certain rights. The Black Lives Matter protests and abortion protests in Poland, for example, would fall under this category. In this regard, the pandemic has exacerbated the level of reckoning and the anger with which people have taken to the streets (where they have been able to). Poverty is historically a driver of anger and discontent and COVID-19 has certainly increased those levels. From this point alone, some change in protests must be attributed to COVID- 19, even if it were exclusively an exacerbation of previous malaises.
As mentioned earlier, protests against lockdowns and restrictions have also been relevant. However, looking at the data, the numbers are not as significant as previously thought. In fact, according to ACLED, the total number of Covid related protests is close to 700 protests. In comparison, the total number of protests in the same period surpasses 60,000. If we were to subtract the COVID-19 related protests from the total number of protests, the spike in the Covid period would still be greater than the spikes we had observed in 2019. Thus, it becomes evident that Covid protests per se were not responsible for the impressive rise that we have seen during the pandemic.
Thus, we reach the final question: will the increase in protests continue post-COVID? All the data seen up to now leads to the same answer: yes. In fact, there are even more studies that seem to show that our post-pandemic protest world will be even more ripe with protests than before. Bocconi Professors Massimo Morelli and Roberto Censolo recently wrote a paper about this very topic and highlighted what is a crucial point to understand the trend we are already seeing and are likely to continue to see: the isolation and subsequent additional stresses (poverty, unemployment, socio-emotional issues) placed on people during public health crises create “fertile ground on which global protests may resurrect more aggressively once the epidemic will be over”. On top of that, the causes for protest that have been already mentioned are not going to disappear and, as mentioned, due to the fact the pandemic has had such a massive impact on people, those very causes are going to be exacerbated.
In short, the pandemic is not going to slow the steady rise in protests seen in the past few years. Of course, it has made a dent in the period in which isolation and limitations on gatherings were present, virtually eliminating the ability to get together for civil unrest. Yet, it is already sufficiently clear that its long lasting impact will be largely positive, supported by evidence from previous pandemics showing that a post-pandemic world is more prone to larger and more aggressive protests.
We leave the readers the choice of just what issues those protests will be about.
Special thanks to Professor Morelli and Martina Cuneo for their invaluable help in guiding us through the research process and showing us the current trends.
 Olson, Mancur. The Logic of Collective Action. Harvard University Press, 1977.
 Freedom House Editors. “NEW REPORT: Freedom in the World 2020 Finds Established Democracies Are in Decline.” Freedom House, 4 Mar. 2020.
 Morelli, Massimo, and Roberto Censolo. “COVID-19 and the Potential Consequences for Social Stability.” Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy, vol. 26, no. 3, 26 Aug. 2020, doi: https://doi.org/10.1515/peps-2020-0045.