Sickness or Silence: Social Movement Adaptation to COVID-19

Jonathan Pinckney
Miranda Rivers
October 29, 2020


A wave of nonviolent movements emerged in 2019, as activists took to the streets en masse in places such as Chile, Iraq, Hong Kong, Ecuador, Iran, and Lebanon to express growing discontent with their governments and demand greater democracy, economic equality, and social justice. In Sudan and Algeria, movements overthrew longtime presidents whose regimes were characterized by corruption and repression. This rise in nonviolent uprisings has been a striking global trend over the last decade. People dissatisfied with the status quo are more commonly using peaceful but extra-institutional methods to pursue social, economic, and political change.

This upward trend in nonviolent resistance, as with every other recent global trend, has been transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic. As COVID-19 spread across the globe, movements that heavily relied on street protests and other tactics requiring mass turnout struggled to respond. April 2020 saw a more than 60 percent drop in public protests according to the ACLED data project. At the same time, activism around COVID-19 spiked in some places as health care workers and ordinary citizens demanded better government responses amid shortages of personal protective equipment and rising death tolls.

Social movements have helped citizens build power and usher in major societal change, paving the way for more democratic and peaceful societies. Successful movements face numerous difficulties, including frequently confronting hostile governments that seek to quash dissent. COVID-19 and the risk of exposure bearing deadly consequences further complicates these challenges and adds unique hurdles. The pandemic carries the potential to blunt activism as movements struggle to adapt tactically, rely more heavily on digital activism and organizing, and face increased government repression.

However, despite these challenges, movements are already adapting to their new operating environments amid COVID-19. Activists have broadened their tactical repertoire, finding innovative ways to take action that do not involve mass gatherings. Movements have also shifted to a virtual workspace, launching online campaigns and engaging in digital organizing. While there has been extensive media speculation about the pandemic’s impact on social movements, for instance arguing that public health restrictions will stop momentum for change, or that a shift to online activism may put movements at risk of increased government repression, to date there has been little systematic research examining COVID-19’s impacts on a variety of movements across multiple contexts. This paper is one of the first attempts to do so, using a cross-national survey of activists asking about a variety of outcomes and testing the impact of COVID-19 deaths and public health restrictions on willingness to join public protest with a survey experiment.

The paper proceeds as follows. First, we discuss the literature on participation in social movements and provide a brief overview of the sparse existing literature on pandemics and movements, and media-based speculation on the specific impact of COVID-19. We then describe our survey design and present results both from general questions and from the survey experiment. The final section concludes with discussion on the implications of the research for the study of social movements during COVID-19.

The full article is available in print or on JSTOR, by subscription.

Funding Statement: This research was funded by the program on nonviolent action at the United States Institute of Peace. The opinions expressed in this paper are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the United States Institute of Peace.