Pandemic and protest

December 27, 2020

How to imagine collective responses to our problems at a time when human contact itself posed the greatest danger...

It’s difficult to talk about 2020 without grappling with the pandemic that disrupted society and undermined our certainties and expectations of the future. The year was particularly challenging for activists as mobilisation became increasingly difficult and dangerous. The question that many were forced to address was how to imagine collective responses to our problems at a time when human contact itself posed the greatest danger to our survival.

The slowing down of time was simultaneously met with an intensification of the crisis for many households, particularly for working-class families. It meant that many were faced with the choice of either suffering injustice or risking Covid-19 by protesting in public. Deciding to protest in the midst of a pandemic was an existential choice in which every participant had to be sure that the risk was worth it when compared to the injustice that one was forced to confront.

An example of one of the most palpable forms of cruelty was the widespread firing of workers by established business houses across Pakistan. It was clear that in a moment of crisis, workers remained the most disposable actors in any cost-cutting measures, a choice that rendered thousands of people unemployed in an already faltering economy. Then workers began resisting arbitrary dismissals across the country. Perhaps the most remarkable struggle was undertaken by employees of Ibrahim Fibres in Faisalabad, a company that fired 3,500 workers in the middle of the pandemic. Despite attempts to intimidate them through false cases and imprisonment, the movement for reinstatement has sustained itself, signalling the slow rebirth of the workers’ movement.

It is pertinent here to mention the struggle of health workers who began protesting in March against the unavailability of PPEs. It was painful to see the abandonment of the health sector and the rising cases of Covid-19 among doctors. The dire conditions prompted doctors to protest against the government in Quetta in March. The entire world was shocked when Balochistan government launched a crackdown and arrested doctors for violating “social distancing” rules. As a response, doctors in Lahore went on an indefinite hunger strike to demand PPEs, registering the most militant response of health workers anywhere around the world during the pandemic. Their demands were eventually met by the government, demonstrating how risking one’s life became a method for protecting one’s community.

There have been other movements that sprang up due to violence experienced by ordinary citizens. An example is the mass mobilisation in Balochistan under the banner of Justice for Bramsh, a campaign demanding justice for a three-year-old girl whose mother was allegedly killed by state-backed militants. Similarly, there was a mass movement and sit-ins for political prisoners in Hunza who had been jailed for almost a decade for demanding compensation for flood victims in the valley. The movement led to the release of all political prisoners, including Baba Jan, one of the most popular leaders of Gilgit-Baltistan.

An outpouring of anger was also witnessed after the gruesome motorway rape incident. Women’s rights activists organised protests to give expression to the vulnerability, fear and rage felt by women across the country. Such protests can be compared to the spontaneous reactions across the US after the murder of George Flyod, a black man who was mercilessly killed by white policemen. When confronted with questions about the danger of protesting under such circumstances, activists once again responded by highlighting the violent context that forced them to register their protest as silence would have meant complicity in the crime.

With restrictions on physical movement, the virtual space became an essential site for citizens to air grievances against governments. More and more young people became engaged in political discussions on Twitter and Facebook, with debates becoming more acrimonious as the year went by. We also witnessed targeted campaigns against opponents, often promoted by those affiliated to the state. An example was the relentless targeting of female journalists who were critical of government policies. Journalists responded by organising an online campaign called Attacks Won’t Silence Us that led to an outpouring of support (as well as hate) and compelled the Human Rights Committee of the National Assembly to hold a daylong session on the issue.

Another example is of government failure to address the growing crisis in the education system. Students from the peripheries and poor households were confronted with a bizarre situation in which they were expected to take online courses/exams without access to the internet. These students were left in a state of limbo as the government refused to even issue a statement on the dire situation, let alone work with them in building an alternative policy.

Finally, Covid-19 revealed a deep crisis of care that afflicts our societies. The manner in which millions of people were abandoned by the state with little access to health care, housing, education in the midst of increasing unemployment shed light on the structural inequalities that shape our society. Many progressive groups, including the Haqooq-i-Khalq Movement, organised relief campaigns across the country to provide food rations to working-class households who were on the verge of financial collapse. This was viewed not as charity but social solidarity to those who produced wealth in society but were deprived from the fruits of their own labour.

It is perhaps correct to say that the pandemic did not alter the framework of Pakistani politics. Indeed, activists’ lives were haunted by death even pre-Covid Pakistan, with abductions, incarcerations and censorship shaping the lived experience of many. Yet, the pandemic exacerbated the anxieties; forcing all of us to acknowledge our precarity and turned activism away from grandiose futuristic horizons and focus on the mundane tasks of survival within a collapsing present. Despite all the fear and turbulence that we have witnessed this year, it has taught us that the only true politics is one in which one is firmly grounded in questions of the present, rather than being swayed by ideological premises that may not correspond with the existing crisis.

Recently, I met a Christian family in Faisalabad who have been unemployed for eight months. Their son, a student of Grade 9, is now forced to work as a daily-wage worker. The callous manner in which such people have been abandoned by this system will haunt us for a long time. However, this family has joined a trade union and is now leading a group of unemployed Christian and Muslim workers in their area. Such instances give us hope that a different, better and more just world is already in the making despite the pervasive destruction we see around us.

The author is a historian and a member of Haqooq-e-Khalq movement

Pandemic and protest