Countries across the world have been reacting to the spread of COVID-19, better known as coronavirus, with school closures, cancellations of major events and lockdowns. But how are activists operating around the global pandemic?

On the 23rd of January, China put the city of Wuhan in lockdown. Thought to be the place of origin for COVID-19, the city of 11 million people was allowed no journeys in or out of it. Inside the city, all public transport was suspended, shops were closed, and residents were only allowed to leave their homes to get essential supplies or medical aid.

Whilst the number of confirmed cases in China is reducing, the virus has already spread to at least 166 countries and territories across the world. With countries like Italy, Spain and the Philippines imposing fines on those who go outside during their lockdowns, those who have been campaigning for change are worried about taking to the streets in case of spreading the deadly coronavirus.

Postponed Protests

As expected, protests around the world have been postponed or cancelled amidst fears of spreading coronavirus. While most countries have already put bans in place to stop more than 500 people gathering together, some have started banning indoor crowds as small as 100.

Environmental group Extinction Rebellion have suggested they would be making “alternative, creative plans for May and June” after their planned nationwide May protests was cancelled. Nathan Kent, a member of Extinction Rebellion Sheffield said: “unfortunately, we had to cancel our recent protest in Barnsley due to COVID-19, but we won’t stop. There’s still action to take, and we’re hoping to deliver educational talks and briefings online.”

Just last week, Stand Up To Racism also called-off the UK’s largest anti-racism march in London. Set to take place on Saturday 21st March to mark the UN Anti-Racism Day, the group was forced to postpone the protests until later in the year.

Stand Up To Racism, like many groups, is taking to the safer form of online activism. | Photo: AntiRacismDay, Twitter.

In an official statement, organisers of the event said: “The developing crisis has been marked by the government’s failure to take serious action to protect people and its ongoing refusal to combat a growing mood of scapegoating and racism around the issue.”

Anger At Authorities

Not all protesting has halted, however; the feeling of abandonment from the government is shared by Pause The System, who held their own ‘lock down’ outside Downing Street this week. The new activist group was formed in the wake of Boris Johnson’s initial lack of action to the pandemic, as he warned “many more people will lose loved ones”.

In a statement on Twitter, the group said: “We are in a public health emergency. The government is failing to listen to the World Health Organisation and are prioritising the economy, disregarding the lives of the most vulnerable in our communities.”

The campaigners wrapped the gates of No 10 in biohazard tapes as they arrived, dressed in fake hazmat suits, gloves and face masks. Its three demands: closing non-essential businesses and schools, providing care for vulnerable communities and overhauling environmental and animal trade industries to prevent future pandemics.

Whilst the UK has changed its approach to the coronavirus, Bolsonaro’s slow reaction to the spread of the virus in Brazil led to millions of protesters in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro calling for the president to step down.

The president, who had previously dismissed precautions against the coronavirus as “hysteria”, saw the largest protest against his government to date, as people banged pots together and shouted “Bolsonaro out!” during a televised statement.

Risking It All

Citizen Amendment Act protesters at Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, are refusing to evacuate their 24/7 sit-in despite concerns of their growing vulnerability to the coronavirus. New measures ruling that gatherings of over 50 people will not be allowed by Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal last week has not stopped the women – who are often in groups of at least 150. Organisers have said the group is using “innovative measures to practice precaution.”

At the sit-in entrance, sanitisers are given to each protester, and those showing any flu symptoms are being asked to go to the government hospitals that test for the virus. Wooden benches have been placed one meter apart as well, meaning the women are no longer in direct contact with each other.

Online Alternatives

The coronavirus outbreak has prompted activists to abandon public demonstrations and start using online protests. Extinction Rebellion’s best-known tactic – mass street gatherings – has given way to online action, using the Twitter hashtag #ClimateStrikeOnline.

In a tweet last week, strike founder Greta Thunberg said: “We must unite behind experts and science. This of course goes for all crises” the 16 year-old’s words have led to a wave of climate activists across the world posting images of themselves holding protest signs on social media – often coordinated to appear at the same time.

Jo Nelson, assistant manager at The Centre For Artistic Activism says there is a need for activism to adapt to the current crisis: “Specific events may need to be cancelled or postponed, but advocacy and campaigning may need to continue.”

The Centre For Artistic Activism gives a list of useful resources, including 5 calls – a website allowing citizens to connect with politicians | Photo: 5calls.org

She continues: “We want as many people to survive this as possible, and for some people the virus isn’t the only thing endangering them. We are planning on sharing ambitious new projects and create resources to inspire activists to keep creating during this tough time.”

The organisation has created a list of ideas and tips for those wanting to continue campaigning online, including phone meetings, building online communities and running events that don’t require close contact.

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