Covid-19, state repression and the decline of people’s movement

A coronavirus graffiti seen at the Har Ki Pauri ghat on the banks of river Ganges at Haridwar in Uttarakhand. | Picture: AFP

The outbreak of Covid-19 shattered the whole world and everything was on a standstill except the state. The state managed to get absolute control over territory and the population and curtailed all civil, political movements and thereby weakened democracy.

Dr Md Afroz & Md Tabrez Alam |

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The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has rocked the whole world with a large number of infections and fatalities that has left approximately 18.7 Crore people affected, with 40.3 Lakh deaths. In India, 3.8 Crore have been affected and 4.8 lakh deaths recorded (World Health Organization, 12 July 2021). Independent researchers, however, suggest higher numbers of fatalities, predicting a 10 times higher toll than what is shown in official figures. The international body United Nations, which is built to counter any global crisis, called upon the world leaders to come forward to tackle the pandemic situation and WHO started working with global experts, governments, other stakeholders to disseminate scientific knowledge and issued health protocols to prevent the outbreak. It devised a ‘Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan’ which acts upon prevention, coordination, surveillance, containment, treatment, through collaborating 146 countries across the world.

In modern times, 2020 is considered one of the toughest years for the entire world that witnessed a complete lockdown and everything was at a standstill. Millions of people lost their jobs and were forced to stay at home as social distancing was required to contain the spread of the virus. The first wave took a heavy toll on Europe and America. Media was filled with human corpses queued at hospitals and cremated in mass burial sites, whereas the second wave jolted the non-western countries and outnumbered all previous records of contamination and deaths such as India. While globally the US has the highest number of deaths, India has the second and Brazil has the third-highest death toll across the world. It is noted that countries that took early preventive measures minimized the damage. The leaders of these three highest-affected countries took the situation very casually and instead engaged in championing politics.

Covid politics
The outbreak of Covid-19 at Wuhan, China in late 2019 and its rapid transmission across the world at a phenomenal level was shocking. While China’s ability to contain the virus and rapid recovery of their economy put serious questions about the origin of the virus, so much so that former US President Trump accused China of the spread of the virus and called it a Chinese virus. Statements such as these by world leaders strengthened conspiracy theories around Covid transmission. There is debate whether the Covid-19 virus is manmade or a natural course of occurrence. The two opposite views have different contrasting views. The majority of virologists see it as a natural occurrence where viruses are transmitted from animals to humans but later Chinese government’s unfair cooperation in investigations has strengthened the opposite virologists claim that there is a possibility of lab leakage. Conservatives in the US and Europe allege that it is intentionally used as a weapon to control the world economy (ABC News, 14 June 21). Beijing, however, rejects such a claim, countering it is a conspiracy of their enemies. There is a continuous tussle between the Washington and Beijing government to counter each side’s claim and use international platforms to influence world politics.

Vaccine nationalism
The discovery of a vaccine should have ideally led to the decline of the spread of the virus, but it has not happened because of negative politics and the emergence of different variants. The latest UK variant, India variant, Delta and Delta+ variant are spreading at a higher rate and proving more fatal than before. The novel coronavirus changes quickly and it may continue to mutate evading our antibodies. The IMA has said that the third wave of Covid is inevitable and imminent in the coming months and we need to strictly follow health protocols and speed up vaccination drives. The only method to halt the transmission of the virus is universal vaccination and it desires global cooperation among big players, be it governments, pharmaceutical giants and other stakeholders. The present race to hoard Covid-19 vaccines by rich countries through monopolizing of purchase agreements with vaccine manufacturers and getting exclusive rights over it and excluding others would hit hard the world’s 8 billion population because of their inability to afford and access the vaccine. WHO has also warned of this by saying that hoarding would deepen the pandemic and we have to prevent such development of ‘Vaccine nationalism’. Sharing fixed supplies strategically and globally is in every country’s national interest. The rich countries already secured pre-purchase agreements and restricted the vaccine supply to the free market such as the US, UK, European Union, Japan with Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer Inc, AstraZeneca etc. For example, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the European Union have spent tens of billions of dollars on deals with vaccine front runners such as Pfizer Inc, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca Plc even before their effectiveness is proven (The Indian Express, 23 Aug.20). This trend is not good for a liberal globalized world. It is a deceitful act. During normal times, the West advocates free market, human rights, liberal internationalism but in times of crisis restricting territorial confinement is hypocritical. Vaccine nationalism demolishes and exposes the hypocritical tall claims of liberal democracy and championing of human rights.

Social movements and state repression
The years 2020 and 2021 have seen a fundamental disruption to the ‘normal way of life of citizens’ around the world. Many countries have responded to the Covid-19 emergency by imposing restrictions on the citizens’ ability to assemble and partake in protests and political action.

Further, changes in policing regulations aimed at granting law enforcement officers the ability to police the public’s adherence to public health regulations have had a significant impact on the ability and freedom of citizens to gather and assert their political opinions and hold governments accountable. At the same time, however, this period has seen a flurry of politically relevant events and movements across the world. From the “Black Lives Matter” movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the US to environmental movements such as the Extinction Rebellion demanding action on climate change, to the political struggles in Hong Kong, India, Myanmar, Colombia, Chile, Turkey, among others. Further, scholars have suggested that Covid-19 has magnified existing social injustices, with disadvantaged groups in society (and disadvantaged countries) suffering adverse consequences due to the imposition of regulation.

Social movements across the Globe
A Social Movement is broadly used to explain the varieties of civil political activism to secure political, social, economic rights through mass mobilization, lobbying in government to bring socio-political change in the lives of common people. The 1960s onward new social movement resulted in the post-industrialized economy which talked not only about economic wellbeing but also human rights of aboriginal people, LGBT rights through public policy initiatives. Some of the popular social movements in contemporary times which have brought massive changes in socio-political space are the Animal rights movement, to end the cruelty against animals for the purpose of food, clothing, research and entertainment. The Anti-War movement is a global peace movement that seeks to achieve world peace, it compels states to halt any war or aggression which threatens the existence of humanity. The disability rights movement is a global social movement that brought legislation and secured equal opportunities and equal rights for people with disabilities. The Shahbag movement in the year 2013 was a mass movement in Bangladesh that demanded the trial of Abdul Qadir Mulla for the crimes against humanity. The Occupy movement was an international progressive social-political movement that organized against anti-capitalism to bring social, economic equality and ‘real democracy’ around the world. The Black Lives Matter movement is a recently organized social movement that has raised an outcry against police brutality and all forms of racially motivated violence against black people. The Farmers movement in India is an ongoing ‘farmers movement’ that seeks to repeal the laws which were legislated in the Indian parliament without conceding farmers’ demands, favouring big corporations.

Social Movement in India
Post independent India witnessed many social movements that brought drastic changes in the socio-political landscape. Although some of them achieved their goal while few of them failed to have an impact on the state and society such as the Chipko Movement of 1973, which was an environmental agitation on the Gandhian principles of non-violence against timber mafia damaging local ecology. It was led by Sunder Lal Bahuguna and was joined by hundreds of women embracing trees to stop its cutting. It was massively successful. Namantaran Andolan of 1978 was aimed to get recognition of Dalit icon in Indian society by renaming Marathwada University to Dr B.R. Ambedkar University. It was a success after 14 years of struggle. Narmada Bachao Andolan of 1985 was organized against the dam construction over the Narmada river which was causing displacement of locals. Their demands were first rehabilitation, replacement and then construction. Unfortunately, it still has not met the end result. Anti-Mandal Agitation of 1990 was an all India protest movement against the V.P. Singh government decision to implement Mandal commission’s recommendation of 27 per cent reservation of OBCs. Another Anti-Reservation Protest in 2006 was against the UPA decision of reservation quota for OBCs in both public and private universities. Both agitations were primarily anti-progressive movements that wanted to retain the social status quo. The year 2011 witnessed another massive public outcry against corruption that demanded Jan Lokpal Bill led by the ‘India against Corruption’ group. The very next year in 2012, there was a public outcry against the Delhi Gang rape incident and which demanded stringent punishment upon such crimes to protect women. Both movements were genuine public outcry that wanted to bring radical changes in the Indian political system but unfortunately were high-jacked for political motives, and the causes faded away over time. Some of the other movements against the establishment were the Jadavpur University Protest in 2014, FTII Agitation in 2015, JNU Protest in 2016, Jallikattu Protest in Tamil Nadu in 2017, Me Too Movement in 2018, CAA, NRC Protest in 2019 that failed to bring any impactful end results because of the nature of involvement of state and society. It might have had a remote effect and but it failed to seek larger societal involvement or it was brutally suppressed by state heavy-handedness such as in the case of CAA, NRC protest. The recent death of two renowned social activists Sunder Lal Bahuguna and Father Stan Swamy due to Covid-19 has two classy examples of success and failures of social movement in India. Both devoted their lives to bring positive social change where one was involved in mobilizing a mass movement while Stan Swamy fought a legal battle for Adivaasi’s rights individually.

Social movements are successful when people are united in citizenry subjects and have a convergence of collective common interest that is glued by public activism. The outbreak of Covid-19 forced people to stay at home and social interaction got restricted that consequently detached public unity. Covid pandemic forced activists across the globe to find creative ways to express dissent and bring civic unity. While states used Covid as a shield to hide their failures, it tries to accumulate maximum power and act autocratically. There are several cases surfacing on media that demonstrate the rising nature of the authoritarian state that hardly respects liberal values and democracy. Thus, in the crisis of governance, it is the civil society that must organize on the subject of civic matters and pressure the government to act upon the behest of citizens. The role of civil society and social workers are imminent in defending public interests through a mass movement that would control political behaviour and restore democratic values.


Dr Md Afroz teaches Political science & Public Administration at MANUU. He tweets at @khwajaAfrozSidd.

MD Tabrez Alam is a Doctoral Scholar at the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies, New Delhi. He tweets at @ktabrezshams.