The new mask: Wave of global revolt replaced by virus fear

Anti-government protesters wear hazmat-like suits and gas masks during a rally in Baghdad.

By ZEINA KARAM

BEIRUT (AP) — As 2019 gave way to 2020 in a cloud of tear gas, and in some cases a hail of bullets, from Hong Kong to Baghdad, from Beirut to Barcelona and Santiago, it seemed civil disobedience and government crackdowns on protests would dominate the international landscape.

Then came the coronavirus.

Protests, by their very nature driven by large gatherings, have been doused. Streets crammed with tens of thousands of chanting protesters are largely deserted. Masks worn to protect against tear gas are now worn to protect against the virus. A very different kind of fear has set in around protest camps and around the world.

The global unrest spanned three continents last year, fueled by local grievances but reflecting worldwide frustration at growing inequality, corrupt elites and broken promises. In Hong Kong, Beirut and Barcelona, images of euphoric protesters captured people’s imaginations around the world even as they were beaten back, and in some cases, shot dead by police.

In most of these places, the protests had waned even before the outbreak — a combination of fear and fatigue giving way to resignation or apathy. The spreading new coronavirus has in some cases given authorities a means to further suppress the protests.

But the movements are not over. Even with the panic and adjusted daily behavior engulfing the world, some continue to demonstrate, insisting they have sacrificed too much to give up. With the street revolts’ underlying causes largely unaddressed, those surviving remnants could eventually swell once more.

SIGNATURE FACE MASKS

Hong Kong’s protesters made face masks a signature of revolt, wearing them to protect against tear gas and conceal their identities from authorities.

These same masks are now ubiquitous around the world -- worn by people from China and Iran, to Italy and America, seeking to protect against the coronavirus.

In Hong Kong, major anti-government protests that at times drew hundreds of thousands of marchers began to tail off late last year.

But smaller-scale gatherings continue to spring up, mostly to mark the anniversary of key incidents during last year’s demonstrations, underlining the refusal of city leader Carrie Lam to give in to most of the movement’s demands.

“The movement that began last June, while no longer regularly making the front pages, is still very much underway and Hong Kong remains on the brink,” wrote Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of modern China at the University of California, Irvine.

The government’s handling of the virus outbreak may add to protesters’ long list of grievances, he said.

Complaints include the selection of quarantine sites, Lam’s refusal to close the border with China entirely and the stranding of Hong Kong residents in virus-hit parts of mainland China, although some returned home last week.

In Chile, protests that drew hundreds of thousands of people demanding social reforms late last year had dropped off dramatically during the southern hemisphere’s summer months. Those who are never absent are the masked hard-liners who clash violently with police.

They call themselves the “first line” of defense for other protesters from police repression.

Despite the expanding coronavirus, Carlos Donoso, a 30-year-old tattoo artist, says he won’t stop protesting.

“You could catch it in the disco, at the gym, in the supermarket. It’s much more important what we’re doing now,” he said.

In India, fear of the virus has had almost no impact on an 85-day-long sit-in led by women in New Delhi’s sprawling Muslim-majority neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh, now an epicenter of the protests over a disputed new citizenship law. Hundreds of women take turns maintaining the around-the-clock gathering.

The demonstrators demand the revocation of the citizenship law, which fast-tracks naturalization for religious minorities from several neighboring countries, but not Muslims. The law caused an explosion of communal violence and rioting in New Delhi, with dozens killed.

Organizers say more women and children were now participating in the sit-in after authorities closed all primary schools in the capital because of the coronavirus.

“We are also taking the necessary precautions by wearing masks,” said Hena Ahmad, a protester.

In a twist, thousands of women across Mexico made their protests felt this week by staying home from work and school, to demonstrate against gender-based violence. And teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg called for digital protests for now, to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

‘BETTER TO DIE PROTESTING’

The protest camps in central Beirut and Baghdad are subdued. The coronavirus was the last straw for two struggling protest movements that for a short while seemed like they might actually achieve at least some of the social change they so desperately aspired for.

Both countries, scarred by long conflicts and on the brink of economic collapse, erupted last October in unprecedented, spontaneous anti-government revolts, calling for revolutionary change. “Thieves!” they shouted to describe a hated and corrupt ruling class they blame for their current despair.

But security crackdowns, disputes among the protesters, economic exhaustion and a craving for normalcy greatly diminished the rallies in recent weeks.

Protesters in both countries now struggle to attract demonstrators with the added obstacle of outbreak worries. Both the Iraqi and Lebanese governments have called on citizens to avoid large gatherings, although they have not yet banned protests outright.

“What are you waiting for? Do not fear corona, you are dying anyway from the air you breathe!” shouted a woman in Beirut marching along with a small group of protesters, referring to Lebanon’s chronic pollution and waste management troubles. “Better to die protesting.”

To encourage protesters, Iraqis set up a sterilization booth on the edge of Baghdad’s Tahrir Square for those entering the encampment at the center of their movement. Civil defense teams sterilized the square and the Turkish Restaurant, a Baghdad high-rise where protesters have been staging a sit-in, turning it into a potent symbol of the demonstrations.

On a recent day, protesters wearing face masks and protective suits marched in Tahrir Square.

“The demonstrations may make you ill, but they will not kill you,” said Ali Salih, 30, who works as a volunteer paramedic for the protesters. “We gave at least 700 martyrs and more than 25,000 wounded. How can it end without fulfilling its demands?”

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of UMMnews.

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