Collective action is alive during the pandemic. But in which social movement areas? One obvious category is public health: Those who demand more public health measures might take online action, and those who oppose protective measures might take to the streets. Either side might target state actors or fellow citizens. The second category that comes to mind is labor. As the pandemic disrupts life, the measures were taken against the spread of the virus (or their lack thereof) lead to economic depression and rising unemployment. We would expect labor-related protests as a result. These are the usual suspects, how about the unusual ones?
Environmental emergency, democracy, anti-racism, and women’s rights seem to trigger protests across the globe. The activists’ perception of urgency might lead them to take to the streets amidst a pandemic. Despite the restrictions. Despite the de facto media blackout on news not related to Covid-19, especially in the first few months of the pandemic. All the while, the pandemic driven state of emergency measures and media’s focus on Covid-19 related news might lift some of the pressures policy makers face in other policy areas. In other words, social movements face more obstacles to be heard and politicians risk less punishment for ignoring the movements’ demands.
As scholars of social movements, we need to focus on the indirect impact of Covid-19 measures on collective action as well. Across the globe. Here are two strikingly similar cases of urban development and environmental policy from my comparative project: Brazil and Turkey (see here for a snapshot on collective action in Turkey). In both of the countries, during the first months of the pandemic, the national governments continued their “development” policies, which environmental groups vehemently opposed. In Brazil, the topic was the deforestation of the Amazon. In Turkey, it was the Canal İstanbul project that aims to create a second Bosphorus in İstanbul. Ricardo Salles, the Brazilian environment minister, argued that the pandemic was a great opportunity to push for unpopular measures, which might likely get blocked in congress. For him, the pandemic was the right time for these policy changes because media focused solely on Covid. Similarly, in March, the Turkish government held a tender for the Canal İstanbul project at a time when schools were shut down and weekend curfews were introduced in Turkey. It lead to an outcry from environmentalist groups claiming that the government took advantage of a public health crisis.
These examples show just one aspect of the indirect impact of the pandemic on the ability of the social movement actors to pressure state actors. Their room to maneuver is severely restricted as it is harder to gather media’s attention, coordinate protests on the streets, or influence agenda-setting in general.