For three years, COVID-19 has run rampant across the world, with 6.6 million people dead and 643 million sickened. Apart from the deadly trail it has left behind, the pandemic has also had a major impact on societies across the world.
The disease has destabilised governments and national economies and ushered in a wave of political upheaval. It has fuelled fascist politics, empowered populist right-wing politicians and opened space for radical right-wing groups to flex their muscles. But the world has also witnessed a wave of progressive activism and organising that has resisted this trend.
The pandemic seems to be part of a series of challenges pushing millions of people to take radical approaches, in both progressive and totalitarian ways. It appears to be empowering more people to step up – people who want to stop the next pandemic, fight to curb climate change and defeat far-right forces.
To students of history, it is hardly surprising that the pandemic has had this effect. Take, for example, the 1918-20 H1N1 influenza pandemic, also known as the Spanish flu outbreak. It killed between 50 million and 100 million people and sickened 500 million worldwide – a quarter of the world’s population.
In a 2017 article, How the Horrific 1918 Flu Spread Across America, author John M Barry presciently argued “the most important lesson from 1918 is to tell the truth.” “To retain the public’s trust, authorities had to be candid,” so they can meet the crisis with “layers” of mitigation efforts, Barry wrote.
But that was not what occurred during the flu outbreak a century ago and that is certainly not what has been happening with the COVID-19 pandemic. National governments and local communities then and now mostly did not take adequate measures to stem the spread of the contagion. Many leaders downplayed it as “ordinary influenza” or a “little flu” or just flat-out lied, creating an atmosphere of distrust and misinformation.
As World War I raged on in 1918, millions of soldiers fell ill. Even after the war’s end, European measures to stop the spread of the virus were meagre or even nonexistent. In the United States, there was no coordinated national effort to combat the pandemic.
Economic recession, riots, civil strife and the rise of far-right movements grew out of the pandemic and World War I. In the US, immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, African Americans and Jews became scapegoats for the spread of H1N1 flu and for the loss of jobs.
During the Red Summer of 1919 alone, white mobs attacked Black communities in more than two dozen cities across the US, beating, raping and killing Black residents and burning their homes and businesses.
In Italy and Germany, fascist forces took advantage of the fallout of the pandemic and war-related recession to win public support. One study even correlated the death toll from the flu pandemic for different cities and regions in Germany from 1918 to 1920 with levels of support for the Nazi Party a decade later.
Yet there was another side effect of the pandemic from a century ago. In the US, with the flu disproportionately killing young white men, more white women found themselves in the workforce in the 1920s, reversing a decades-long decline in the number of working women. This was a boost to first-wave feminism as it normalised women’s presence in workplaces.
Some experts consider the frivolity of the Roaring Twenties itself an example of the left-leaning radicalisation of young people in response to a pandemic, recession, war and the violence of the era. This may have been particularly true for young intellectuals leading literary movements like the Harlem Renaissance and modernism.
In the colonised world, the pandemic also had a major impact. In India, at least 12 million people died, mostly during the second wave of infections in 1918-19 while another 2.5 million people from a population of roughly 130 million died from the disease on the African continent. India’s and Africa’s British rulers, in particular, showed racist indifference to this overwhelming death toll, which came on top of the pervasive poverty and suffering under colonialism.
There is not much more to learn about the pandemic from African archives beyond the death statistics because as author Nanjala Nyabola put it, nearly everything in these archives “is the perspective of colonial officials constructing a racist political state”. Small wonder that anti-colonial movements grew in strength and numbers in the years after the end of World War I and as the H1N1 pandemic abated.
Today, one can easily draw parallels between the Spanish flu outbreak and the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past three years, the signs of fascist resurgence in the West have grown with the spread and mutation of COVID-19.
In the US, the most obvious example is the insurrection on January 6, 2021, in Washington, in which several thousand protesters stormed the US Capitol building to stop Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election win of President Joe Biden. In addition to former President Donald Trump’s role in inciting this violent attempt to overthrow the government, it was also apparent that restrictions put in place to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 – what the January 6 insurrectionists would call “government overreach” – played a role.
In Italy, which had one of the deadliest early outbreaks in Europe, Giorgia Meloni and her Brothers of Italy party, which has fascist roots, won the election with a coalition of other far-right forces. In the Philippines, which also suffered from government mismanagement of the pandemic response, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, a member of the Marcos family, which presided over a brutal dictatorship in the 1980s, was elected president.
For supporters of the far right, this form of “governmental overreach” is part of a theme that includes globalisation, climate change and immigration. All are examples of how the pandemic has made already existing trends towards totalitarianism and racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, homophobic and religious extremism normal, even alluring.
But COVID-19 has also encouraged political action in the opposite direction. In the US, the strong voter turnout in the midterms for centre-left Democratic Party candidates for Congress like John Fetterman in Pennsylvania and Mandela Barnes of Wisconsin against fascist-leaning Republicans is one example. Another is the series of labour actions, including more than 50,000 higher education workers on strike in the University of California system and at New School University.
In Iran, where there was much anger at the high death toll during the pandemic, mass protests were triggered by the death in police custody of Jina (Mahsa) Amini but evolved into resistance against government repression. In China, demonstrations erupted against the government’s zero COVID-19 policy, but also against the crackdown on the freedom of dissent and movement.
There have also been widespread labour disruptions in commerce, public transportation, education, childcare, healthcare and other sectors in the UK, France, South Korea, Australia and South Africa among many other nations.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has been different from past global outbreaks in how people have mobilised. The response over the past three years has been to shift organising efforts online and onto platforms like Twitter, Zoom, Facebook and Instagram.
“Our ‘armchairs’ [from the disdainful refrain of ‘armchair activism’] have become the primary portals for our current sociopolitical movement,” social justice activist Anjali Enjeti wrote in her book Southbound.
In-person activism and organising certainly did not go away with the COVID-19 pandemic. But those combined with online efforts and outrage over the failures of governments to tell the truth about the pandemic galvanised Zillennials and Gen Zers (people born between 1995 and 2012). In the US, they along with Black and Latinx voters, defeated regressive forces in the 2020 and 2022 elections.
It remains to be seen whether this mobilisation will ultimately keep the US and other countries from falling into a civil war or send them ever closer toward disruption and destruction. Perhaps this depends on answering the questions that award-winning author Imani Perry asks at the end of her book South to America: “When will you finally be repulsed enough to throw a wrench in the works? When will you allow curiosity and integrity to tip over into urgency?”
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, on top of climate change and the rise of far-right forces in the US and globally, millions of people have already been dreaming of and doing much for a better world. This is because they are hurting. Because for them, getting into good and deadly trouble is the only choice.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.