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22 Apr, 2020 17:00

‘Open the economy – I need to feed my family!’ Will lockdown fatigue spiral into destructive mass protests?

‘Open the economy – I need to feed my family!’ Will lockdown fatigue spiral into destructive mass protests?

As the world races against time to beat Covid-19, many feel the lockdown has been unfair and over-the-top. Now, anger and frustration threatens to snowball into something that makes a pandemic look like a picnic by comparison.

For many Westerners, many of whom are living paycheck to paycheck, the ‘shelter-at-home’ order in response to the coronavirus feels like a death sentence, especially if accompanied by the loss of a job. Now, many people, despite lockdown orders, are beginning to vent their anger on the streets.

Over the weekend, a number of American and European cities no longer resembled ghost towns, as hundreds of people protested their Covid-19 incarceration. 

In Paris’s low-income northern suburbs, riots broke out over the police’s alleged “heavy-handedness” against ethnic minority communities during the lockdown. Next door, a large group rallied on Berlin’s central square to protest about the government’s “authoritarian” measures. Several instances of the German police aggressively hauling away demonstrators were caught on film.

Across the pond, in Michigan, hundreds of Lansing residents ignored stay-at-home and social distancing measures to participate in Operation Gridlock. This saw the state capital overrun with vehicles, many of which were proudly displaying the American and Confederate flags. On the street, protesters carried signs revealing pent-up sentiments such as “Musician out of work!” and “Open the economy – I need to feed my family!”

The cruel irony of those demonstrations is that, in the past, people went on strike to demand better working conditions or a fair wage. Today, they’re simply protesting to get back to work, or just find a job, so they can support their families. Under such surreal circumstances, it’s difficult to say who deserves more pity: the protesters who simply want things to get back to normal, or the police who must arrest them. 

Where did things go wrong?

Like some dystopian Hollywood film, the lives of billions of people across the planet changed dramatically overnight as though an invisible tornado had ripped through town. They awoke to an economy that lay in shambles, while buildings and infrastructure were left miraculously standing. Such is the power of a virus. But Covid-19 can’t take all the blame.

At present, millions of people are left wondering how it was possible that their leaders failed to warn them about the pandemic. And then, as the disease began its murderous march across the Western hemisphere, those countries with the world's most advanced medical facilities, equipment and techniques seemed suddenly incapable of organizing simple antibody tests for their citizens. Even the straightforward task of supplying enough face masks seemed like mission impossible. In the ultimate irony, communist China, the alleged source of the outbreak, was looked to as the provider of last resort for many emergency supplies.

Also on rt.com Why East beats West in the war against coronavirus

Speaking of China, those same Western countries that forever preach about the authoritarian impulses of certain foreign states suddenly began to resemble the real autocrats. Instead of using moderation when it came to enforcing rules and regulations on their people, the pandemic has had the curious effect of bringing out the inner monsters in many officials. Perhaps that was best exemplified by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who advised, in true Pinochet style, that Americans should take photos of people who were found to be breaking social-distancing protocols and turn them over to the authorities.

That comment shows how, instead of bringing people together in common cause, a tragedy can quickly set them against each other if the advice they’re receiving is misguided. De Blasio would have done his country a much higher service had he told New Yorkers to photograph those in need and set about finding ways to help them. 

While millions have begrudgingly accepted the shelter-in-place orders and temporary closure of non-essential businesses as a necessary way to save lives, many are now willing to accept the risk against an invisible threat as opposed to the alternative, which, for some, comes down to starving in their homes. And that’s not an exaggeration.

In the United States alone, 22 million Americans have lost their jobs since President Trump declared a national emergency last month. And although the government rammed through a massive multi-trillion-dollar stimulus package, the US$1,200 check that arrived in the mailboxes of 80 million Americans was reportedly spent just to keep food on the table. Meanwhile, in another ominous sign that the US economy is heading for the abyss, the number of Americans using their credit cards to pay their rent is up 30 percent on last month.

But even for those who have the financial means to ride out the storm, the idea of remaining caged up within four walls for weeks on end is beginning to take a heavy psychological toll. The reason for this has largely gone unstated. It needs to be remembered that Western democracies, for better or worse, are largely built on the foundation of the entertainment industrial complex, which consumes a massive part of the US and European economies, not to mention attention spans.

In a flash, however, all of the glittering trappings of modern democracy - restaurants, shopping malls and sporting events, for example - have vanished. Now, many people are struggling to survive at home, where their only source of entertainment – at least for those who’ve forgotten how books work – is the occasional take-out pizza and Netflix movie. Instagram accounts have never looked so dull. As is only to be expected, anger and frustration are mounting. 

All of this puts the situation, not least of all in the United States, into a fiercely politicized context. After all, 2020 promises to witness one of the most momentous presidential elections to hit Washington, DC in many years. 

Donald Trump, like other Western leaders across the world, is currently in a desperate race against time to determine the best way to open up the US economy and the doors to the homes of billions of families experiencing what could best be described as house arrest. Open up commerce too early and you risk being blamed for endangering lives; open it too late and you risk triggering the onset of another economic depression, as well as the outbreak of mass public unrest. Needless to say, not an enviable position for any political leader to be in. 

Nevertheless, as governments around the world must certainly understand, they need to find ways of relaxing their lockdown measures in order to get the people out of social isolation and back to work. But we need to do it in such a way that the cure does not become worse than the disease, as presently seems to be the case.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.