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.”

In a matter of weeks, the virus managed to do what legions of riot police and security services could not: it kept the masses at bay. Embattled authorities breathed a sigh of relief—unless, of course, those authorities happened to be Donald Trump, who has egged on anti-lockdown protesters (known by some as the Flu Klux Klan) in half a dozen states, or Jair Bolsonaro, who did him one better by attending a rally in Brasília and telling protesters, “I believe in you,” between coughing spells.

Last year, it was declared, was the “Year of the Street Protester.” If anything, 2020 was only meant to get rowdier.

None of the grievances that fueled last year’s protests have gone away, though. If anything, mounting inequitable hardship has deepened populist outrage. But social-distancing guidelines have organizers on the back foot. So how to keep up momentum without flouting sensible restrictions and putting themselves and their supporters at risk?

In South America, many have found an answer in the tradition of the cacerolazo—banging pots and pans from windows to voice discontent, a tactic in use since at least the 1830s. While New Yorkers clap and bang pots out their windows in support of health workers every night, millions in Brazil staged a cacerolazo to protest Bolsonaro’s dangerous mishandling of the pandemic, creating dramatic cacophonies in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo peppered with shouts of “Bolsonaro out!” Chileans have followed suit, staging cacerolazos of their own.

Artists have also started posting digital versions of street murals. In Germany, activists lay out empty shoes at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate to draw attention to the plight of migrants seeking entry to the European Union. Israelis opposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meanwhile drew some 600,000 viewers to a livestreamed “virtual protest” in March, complete with keynote speakers. In April, 2,000 demonstrators went a step further by staging a protest while standing six feet apart in central Tel Aviv. If nothing else, they got the attention of Netanyahu’s son, who tweeted, “I hope the elderly who die following this protest will only be from your bloc.”

A climate-protection group, Fridays for Future, replaced people with cardboard posters for a rally in front of the Reichstag, in Berlin, on April 24.

Online teach-ins and rallies have sprouted up all over the world.

But organizers wonder how well these will work in the long run. Protests are most effective when they focus minds and news cameras on particular problems—and for that no method has proven quite so effective as good old-fashioned street protest. “We know that, for example, for street protests, after a certain number of people marching in front of the Brandenburg Gate, you will get a certain exposure,” Swen Hutter, a scholar of political sociology at the Free University of Berlin, told me. “In the digital world, it’s much less established, so it’s also much more of a pick-and-choose thing for politicians to see who they support.”

Two thousand demonstrators went a step further by staging a protest while standing six feet apart in central Tel Aviv.

That’s one reason the street demo has remained a favorite tactic from the March on Washington to the Arab Spring. Even if new methods prove effective, it is hard to imagine any supplanting the tried-and-true protest once social-distancing restrictions are lifted.

But when will they be lifted, and how? There has been plenty of hand-wringing that authoritarian regimes will be loath to give up a medically validated pretext to do what they have longed to do since the Muscadins were unleashed on the Jacobins—curb freedom of assembly.

Authorities in Hong Kong and Algeria wasted no time using the distraction of the pandemic to arrest opposition activists, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán unabashedly moved to expand his own power, and in Russia Vladimir Putin doused protests against his latest move to stay in power beyond 2024. In many countries, soldiers are enforcing lockdowns, and it doesn’t take much effort to imagine the new apps tracking social contacts being deployed to quash dissent as well as infection. For Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, such measures amount to normalizing a “permanent state of emergency,” sounding the death knell for many liberal freedoms.

It doesn’t take much effort to imagine the new apps tracking social contacts being deployed to quash dissent as well as infection.

For reformers, hope, paradoxically, may lie in the worsening of current economic trends. Take a look through the chants of history’s great uprisings—“Bread, and the Constitution of 1793” (French); “Peace, Land, and Bread” (Russian); “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice” (Egyptian)—and a pretty clear theme emerges. Add to that, pandemics in particular have a habit of spurring political change by worsening underlying social strains: the Black Death helped end feudalism, cholera outbreaks in poor Parisian districts heightened the class resentments behind the 1848 revolts and backlash, and the AIDS crisis helped hobble Haiti’s Duvalier regime by destroying tourism. Already, there’s been rumblings of similar forces at work—prison riots in Iran and Peru, looting in Southern Italy, unrest in the Paris suburbs, and sporadic re-emergence of protests in Lebanon, Iraq, and India. “Are we going to die of hunger or the coronavirus?” one Lebanese protester asked a reporter.

If the 2008 financial crisis taught us anything, it is that the shape of a recovery can matter just as much as a recession. Resentment over bank bailouts while mortgage owners lost their houses fueled protests long after markets rebounded.

This time, low-wage sanitation, logistics, and food-service workers—suddenly deemed “essential”—may be even more emboldened to push for fairer treatment and pay. Disgruntled workers have already staged walkouts at several Amazon facilities, and rent strikes have broken out in Chicago and Oakland, California. The medical sector itself could become a flash point: doctors in Hong Kong, Islamabad, and Jakarta have threatened or carried out strikes over equipment shortages and inadequate policies.

And even strict policing couldn’t stop signs of discontent from bubbling up across the world on May Day: More than a dozen were arrested in Turkey for trying to hold marches, while hundreds assembled in central Athens, wearing masks and gloves and measuring out the correct social distance with tape measures. Workers across the U.S. staged strikes to call for better conditions. Czechs protested with car horns and drums. Parisians sang from their balconies.

If those responses spread, they could augur a return of the Occupy movements, only now “escalated exponentially,” Francesca Vassallo, a scholar at the University of Southern Maine who studies economic grievance and protest, told me. “So people are not only occupying squares, so to speak, they’re occupying any house they find in their city. They occupy government buildings, for example. They occupy city councils.”

If that proves to be the case, we may soon look back on the days of empty shoes and cacerolazos as dispatches from an alien world too—a world before we saw clearly just how bad things could get.

Alex Dziadosz is a freelance journalist and writer based in Berlin