Unrest undeterred – the state of global protest

In March and April Control Risks recorded more incidents of civil unrest than in any months since November 2019 – the high-water mark for global protest activity in recent years.

  • Although high rates of COVID-19 continue to deter protest activity at a local level, the pandemic has not led to a sustained fall in unrest globally.
  • The pandemic and governmental responses will continue to exacerbate persistent drivers of unrest such as economic inequality, corruption, and democratic deficits.
  • Despite global commonalities, local concerns remain the trigger for most protest activity, underscoring the importance of mature threat monitoring capabilities.
  • The fallout from the pandemic will drive further protests in the year ahead, while single issue activism is also expected to rebound.

Roaring 2020s

2019 witnessed some of the largest and most frequent protests in recent history. In almost every month we recorded more incidents of civil unrest than in most individual months over the preceding decade. Although numbers dipped after November 2019, they remained well above recent historical averages into the early months of 2020.

The outbreak and spread of COVID-19 initially suppressed the global discontent. Fear about the virus and strict government lockdowns limited the intent and ability of protesters to take to the streets, while an initial “rally round the flag” solidarity in many countries lowered the temperature among anti-governmental activists.

At a global level, the dip in protest activity did not last long. In fact, in the 12 months from April 2020, we recorded 14% more protests than in the 12 before. Notably, the spike in unrest has been distributed across both developed and developing economies, as well as countries where protests were uncommon in 2019 .

New and pre-existing conditions

New drivers of unrest are underpinning the higher-than-average rates. Pandemic-related restrictions have provoked a backlash the longer they are in place, and when reimposed or tightened to counter new waves. Protests have reflected scepticism about the necessity of such measures, especially as infection rates come down and protesters push for them to end more quickly.

Such unrest is primarily motivated by economic concerns and uncertainty driven by reduced incomes and rising unemployment. Ideological objections to government authority and concerns about the impact of restrictions on individual liberties also frequently play a part. In some countries, anti-lockdown sentiment has dovetailed with debunked conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and vaccination, as well as other bogus narratives.

In addition to governmental overreach, inaction or the perceived inadequacy of the governmental response to the pandemic remains a frequent driver of unrest. Dissatisfaction with the official handling of the crisis in recent months has stoked protests from Jordan to Guatemala. In Paraguay, thousands took to the streets in March to demand the resignation of President Mario Abdo Benítez amid reports of a lack of medicines and supplies at ill-equipped hospitals while COVID-19 cases rose.

Other issues have also gained traction – a sustained wave of protests for racial justice and against police abuse in the US triggered similar but smaller and briefer actions in other countries. Concerns have been adapted to the local context, with demonstrators expressing grievances over issues such as minority and refugee rights, as well as police violence. Although some were motivated by historical attitudes, most have reflected ongoing grievances. In this context, heavy-handed responses to lockdown violations have also been met by protests.

On top of these new drivers are persistent and longer-term catalysts for unrest. Democratic backsliding, corruption and economic inequality remain among the most common themes underpinning protest action. COVID-19 has aggravated all three. Government budgets have been hit hard and this has undermined the ability of some to spend on public services, infrastructure, or social safety nets. Meanwhile, some governments have used the pandemic as an excuse to undermine political freedoms, and civil society reports have indicated a fall in democratic standards. Suspicions abound that governments have abused new powers, while justifying these actions with the need to address the public health crisis.

Colombia – where clashes between protesters and the police have been escalating since late April – is a case in point. Corruption, the absence of the state in rural areas, poverty, inequality, and youth unemployment all fuelled protests in the country in late 2019. The pandemic has only made these issues worse. It also demonstrates how a single catalyst can release simmering tensions. In Colombia’s case the trigger for the more recent unrest was a controversial tax reform bill that forms part of the government’s efforts to slow the growth of debt from COVID-19 spending.

All protest is local

Despite these global drivers and common threads, most protest activity and the triggers that spark it remain country-specific and are driven by local developments. As a result, many of the countries that have experienced an increase in protests in recent months are different from those that saw the largest protests in what we previously described as an unprecedented year in 2019: 

  • The arrest and subsequent imprisonment of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in late January triggered some of the largest and most widespread demonstrations in Russia in recent years.
  • Belarus saw its largest anti-government protests in history as demonstrators demanded the resignation of President Alexander Lukashenko following the fraudulent presidential elections in August 2020 in which he claimed an overwhelming victory.
  • The continuing racial justice protest movement is likely to be the most extensive in modern US history (in terms of geographic scope and participation). Meanwhile, widespread political protests have taken place before, during and after the 2020 general election.
  • The military coup at the start of February in Myanmar has triggered large and disruptive countrywide protests. The military (Tatmadaw) has intensified its crackdown to intimidate communities and deter them from supporting protesters.
  • In Thailand, although they have lost momentum into 2021, anti-government protests occurred regularly throughout the second half of 2020. Among other issues, demonstrators called for a rewriting of the military-endorsed constitution, reform of the monarchy and the resignation of Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.
  • In India, months-long protests have seen farmers call for a rollback of agricultural laws that the government claims will modernise an antiquated agricultural system. Farmers have claimed the laws will erode government-guaranteed prices for major crops.
  • Protests in Nigeria – against police brutality by the police Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) – peaked in October 2020 and marked the country’s largest-ever nationwide protest movement.
  • In Colombia, as previously mentioned, a controversial tax reform bill has since late April triggered violent clashes among some of the largest protests in recent years. 

As has increasingly been the case in recent years, technological developments have allowed protest movements to grow and spread quickly. Social media platforms and encrypted messaging forums provide a space for activists to organise without grassroots campaigning. In some cases, they can mobilise within days or even hours of a trigger event, even without a recognised leader or organisational structure. For businesses with a global footprint, this reinforces the need for a mature threat monitoring capability.

No letting up

The local nature of most protest activity means that the precise outlook will remain dependent on national developments. However, there is unlikely to be a significant reduction in global protest activity. As the pandemic continues to unfold, unrest will persist and may increase in some countries that suffer deeper governance and economic challenges. In others, upcoming political developments will motivate demonstrators. 

Most immediately, the ebb and flow of COVID-19 infections will continue to influence the protest landscape. High rates of infection will be met in many locations with greater adherence to restrictions and a reduced inclination to gather at public demonstrations. Falling infection rates could push more demonstrators onto the streets – particularly while restrictions remain in place and if these restrictions are seen as an imposition on civil liberties. The prospect of COVID-19 vaccine passports or status certificates has already attracted opposition. In recent weeks, protesters in countries including the UK, France, Germany, Czechia and Israel have worn yellow Stars of David, an attempt to draw an analogy between vaccine passports and the symbols that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi-occupied Europe.

With restrictions easing in some regions, other forms of protests including those linked to single issue activism are likely to see a rebound. Environmental activism is likely to increase in Western countries with successful vaccine rollouts as concern about climate change continues to rise. Although mass rallies in these regions are likely to return slowly, targeted actions against company premises will be a common feature.

Operational disruption will remain the primary impact on businesses. However, the potential for localised violence remains. Even though most protest movements lack violent intent, clashes between police and protesters (or between protesters and counter-protesters) will continue to expose business assets and personnel to incidental threats.

Get in touch

Can our experts help you?