Before 2020 became the year of plague, it would have been reasonable to assume its defining crisis would be a global tide of uprisings and revolutions. Mass demonstrations rocked Hong Kong, Chile, Bolivia, Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Iran, Malta, Sudan, France, and India—to name but a few. In 2019, millions poured into the streets, clamoring against corruption, inequality, and authoritarian rule. Six heads of state or government resigned. Urgent reforms and concessions were offered. Opinion pages likened the unrest to the upheavals of 1848, 1968, and 1989: last year, it was declared, was the “Year of the Street Protester.” If anything, 2020 was only meant to get rowdier.
But images from those days now look like dispatches from an alien world. Protest squares in Beirut, Baghdad, and Santiago were emptied, tents and banners pulled down. In Paris, protesters’ signature yellow vests are once more the preserve of essential transport personnel. Even Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, who spearheaded the Fridays for Future climate strikes, has urged followers to take their dissent online “for the greater good of society.”