Governments around the world conceived a robust response to the pandemic at its outset in 2020, and their citizens dutifully played their parts. After all, even if the burdens of self-imposed isolation were onerous, they would be necessary only for a few weeks. But as the weeks wore on and the restrictions persisted, a backlash began to materialize.
The catalysts for what would become a more sustained revolt against this new status quo were, however, related only tangentially to the pandemic itself, so they could be attributed to any number of cumulative factors. Public health celebrities, social engineers, and interest groups became oddly invested in perpetuating the truncated life we were leading. They either overlooked or simply dismissed as aberrant any rejection of the Covid-mitigation regime they had either put in place or were propagandizing for. Their narrow field of vision obscured what may be the most important story of this decade: a wave of Covid-inspired revolutionary activity that continues today.
In the United States, ironically enough, the most dogmatic advocates of pandemic restrictions were the first to undermine the rationale for those restrictions. That happened in June 2020, after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the outbreak of protests nationwide that violated the stay-at-home and do-not-congregate rules of the moment. “Suddenly,” Politico reported, “public health officials say social justice matters more than social distance.” Lockdown enthusiasts became protest enthusiasts and, in so doing, exposed the hypocrisy of the regime they were seeking to impose on everyone else. The statues came down, and the cities burned. But when that nihilistic convulsion ran its course, the same people who had provided the get-out-of-jail-free cards to the protestors began insisting yet again that we all go back to our jails.
Too late. Over time, opponents of Covid restrictions adopted the language of protest, too. Defiant community leaders ignored government orders to scale back public gatherings, worship freely, and conduct commerce—often facing real legal or regulatory risks for having done so. By the spring of 2021, with Americans literally lining up by the millions to be vaccinated, the response veered wildly between the impulse to relax restrictions as the threat from the disease receded and acceding to the demands from public health functionaries for a government-engineered new normal.
Throughout 2021, mask mandates came and went and came again. Improvised conventions such as social distancing and plexiglass barriers on countertops fell by the wayside. Restrictions on the services and activities accessible to the unvaccinated went unenforced and were ultimately repealed, and the Biden administration’s efforts to lobby fellow Democrats to preserve or restore 2020’s most onerous diktats were summarily ignored. What high vaccination rates could not accomplish, the fear of political consequences did.
But for all the enthusiasm for restoring the old normal, the American political class was still getting mixed signals from the public. Polling indicated that the pandemic per se was no longer even a passing priority for American voters by the fall of 2021. Indeed, according to the polling, more voters were comforted than distressed by the cosseting restrictions imposed on them. Americans backed mask mandates, involuntary vaccination programs, and “restricting unvaccinated people from offices,” Reuters reported. As late as September of 2021, CNN crowed, “Americans believe that the public health benefits of restrictions due to Covid-19 are worth the economic and lifestyle costs.”
When Axios took the lay of the land in the autumn of 2021, it found no evidence of any “Covid school backlash” in America. Off-year elections in the United States, in which education (or lack thereof) during the pandemic took center stage, seemed to disprove this contention. But the voters’ verdict was attributed to reactionaries—contrived parents’ groups funded by deep-pocketed interests and agitators whipping up a frenzy over “woke” initiatives in the classroom, the existence of which American reporters struggled to confirm.
And yet, voters registered unmistakable dissatisfaction with the products of the pandemic: anti-egalitarian race essentialism in the classroom, “reimagining” the role of law enforcement, and disgorging trillions of dollars on nebulous progressive policy goals, the most discernable effect of which was to reduce people’s personal purchasing power. Even in the face of the voters’ display of hostility to the world the pandemic had made, few efforts were spared in the campaign to diminish that reaction’s significance.
The Virginians who turned out to elect Glenn Youngkin were the executors of a “white backlash” according to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. Critics deemed Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s move to rescind mask mandates an “anti-people” effort to appease a cabal of moneyed interests. A wave of state legislative moves to reclaim the emergency powers bestowed on executive offices around the country was written off as lawfare designed to benefit special interests. Restrictions on travel were resented only by “anti-vaxxers,” whose unhappy lot was more or less deserved.
“There is no getting ‘back to normal,’ experts say,” read a CNN headline on the eve of 2022. “The sooner we accept that, the better.” It was part of one last counteroffensive against the forces arrayed in defense of the normal. Such was the hostility toward the Covid-mitigation regime that all the Biden administration could muster in response to that winter’s surge of infection was harsh rhetoric—admonitions for those who were about to embark on a “winter of death.”
By the beginning of 2022, and much to the consternation of public health advocates, the governing class had lost its enthusiasm for broader mitigation measures. In the United States, the courts and a political system responsive to the public will dismantled much of the Covid regime’s most egregious excesses. But America’s experience was unique. Elsewhere in the democratic world, street action was necessary to restore the pre-pandemic social contract.
The story the American political class told itself about the backlash to the Covid regime in 2021 was about everything except the Covid regime. A similar phenomenon typified elite discourse across the globe. According to storytellers the world over, the growing restiveness all around them was a fixation of hysterical dead-enders.
Though growing global unease with the seemingly intractable Covid status quo was hard to miss, many were committed to missing it. So, when the passions building for over a year exploded into the streets in 2022, the analytical framework to help observers understand what they were witnessing did not exist.
When Europe began to boil with protest, 2022 was just four days old. In January alone, thousands of marchers gathered in Paris, Athens, London, Brussels, Prague, Helsinki, Stockholm, and many smaller cities to protest vaccination mandates, indoor capacity limits, moving university classes online, and other Covid-related restrictions.
In the Bulgarian capital of Sofia, demonstrators broke through police cordons and briefly invaded the parliament building before moving on the country’s Ministry of Health. Dutch riot police aggressively dispersed demonstrations against restrictions prohibiting public gatherings of two or more people. National Health Service workers joined hands with anti-vaccine-mandate demonstrators in England to demand the repeal of a measure that would, if it came online, cost the unvaccinated their livelihoods.
In Germany, nearly every city of appreciable size was host to widespread unrest. Protests against the Covid regime and counterprotests erupted across the German state, often resulting in violent clashes with police that crippled much of the country for weeks. At issue was a meeting scheduled in January in Germany’s national disease control center, where experts would determine how to respond to the Omicron variant’s surge. In the end, Berlin and the heads of Germany’s federal states extended restrictions, but Europe’s anti-Covid protests were not unsuccessful.
Within weeks of this outburst of nonconformity, the government of the Czech Republic, which had only just recently formed, scrapped its predecessor’s plan to impose Covid passports on the service sector. Austria abandoned curfews on shops and restaurants, and Italy pared back restrictions on vaccinated Italians. By early February, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, and France had dropped the bulk of their domestic Covid restrictions. Finland and Switzerland followed soon after.
“Under pressure from a pandemic-weary public, politicians across the region are deeming many public-health measures increasingly unnecessary,” Bloomberg reported. The report cited authorities conceding that the “largely futile” effort to contain the Omicron variant’s spread had one measurable effect: destabilizing European politics.
Canada’s reputation for governable placidity was torn apart early in 2022 when dissent against Ottawa’s Covid policies coalesced around a convoy of truckers. The protest was ostensibly animated by a January mandate that required drivers transiting the U.S. border to be fully vaccinated, overturning a consensus that formerly exempted truckers as “essential workers.” The convoy snowballed, attracting support on both sides of the border. They blockaded bridges, disrupted commerce, and descended on Ottawa with a series of nonnegotiable demands. A weeks-long standoff ensued, and it ended in violence. Demonstrators were pepper sprayed and arrested by the hundreds, and some protesters resisted police efforts to clear the roads by force.
The Canadian government went to war with the protesters, invoking emergency measures that allowed them to deny bail to certain suspects and freeze demonstrators’ bank accounts. Canadian media savaged the protesters and their rally cry—“freedom!”—because, as the Canadian Broadcasting Company insisted, the “concept of freedom can be used to reject equality.” But when members of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s own party started defecting, Ottawa backed off its initial draconian response. February’s convoy was dispersed, but the “freedom” protests continued well into the summer.
In New Zealand and Australia, the consensus around some of the democratic world’s most authoritarian Covid policies rapidly came undone in early 2022. Inspired by events in Canada, demonstrators laid siege to the parliament building in Wellington, defying calls by police to vacate the premises. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reluctantly relaxed New Zealand’s Covid war footing to appease the protestors, but they would not be appeased. The demonstrations continued for weeks before they, too, were dispersed in what the New York Times described as “chaotic and sometimes bloody clashes” with police.
The Canadian contagion made its way to Canberra around the same time. Australian demonstrators sought to disrupt the conduct of parliament and blockade the airport. The Western press condemned this movement as a “mixed bag” of “sovereign citizen” kooks and “QAnon-style conspiracy theorists.” But the demonstrations against Australia’s sometimes inhumane Covid-suppression policies predated Canada’s convoy, and the more than 10,000 protesters who gravitated to the cause in February defied simple classifications.
Before the spring, Australia’s total tourism ban was gone, and the government began deliberately easing domestic restrictions. “There will inevitably be a level of virus within the community going forward,” the country’s health minister reluctantly confessed in March of that year—a move that was attacked by the country’s public health establishment, correctly, as a response to “expedient” political incentives.
As in Canada, lingering discontent with the government continued into the summer. “We’re not here to be controlled,” said one Australian attendee of an August protest. “We just want to live our lives freely.”
From the outside looking in, it seemed as though the authoritarian world had the tools to ensure the public’s compliance with the Covid regime indefinitely. But the backlash came for the autocrats, too.
Just as those in the West who were partial to the pandemic’s revisions to the social contract failed to recognize the significance of the revolt against them, the reaction against the pandemic’s restrictions among the world’s captive peoples was initially attributed to almost anything but the pandemic.
During Covid’s first full year, Cuba was hailed for having both contained the virus’s spread and developing its own indigenous vaccine that would compete with those being rolled out in the Western world. At the same time, though, U.S. Coast Guard officials observed that more and more Cubans were attempting the dangerous journey into American waters. Both the pandemic and Havana’s attempt at the beginning of 2021 to unify its national currency with its convertible currency produced a crisis that would explode over that summer.
The pandemic had decimated the country’s lauded medical sector, and Cuba’s clinicians sounded the alarm. The Communist country’s primary newspaper, Granma, later accused Cuba’s health-care workers of being used in “enemy campaigns” to execute an “anti-Cuban offensive.” Still, even government-provided statistics bore out their claims. With infections and deaths spiking and care unavailable to most of the nation’s citizens, and in combination with an economic crisis, the Cuban people took to the streets.
“We want freedom,” Cuban demonstrators chanted in their thousands as they poured into the streets of the island autocracy in July 2021. “We are no longer afraid.” They should have been. Demonstrations against the government continued for nearly two weeks before they were violently dispersed. Police detained hundreds, ransacked activists’ homes, and abused their detainees.
As is often the case, the Cuban government’s Western apologists explained away the protesters’ explicitly stated desire for essential human liberties. They insisted that it was little more than a spasm of quotidian frustrations with the availability of social services. But the spirit of activism and the waves of repression inspired by the pandemic are acutely menacing to the regime in Havana. The crackdown on dissent that targeted ordinary citizens and well-known government critics alike has incepted a solidarity movement that knows no class distinctions—an outcome the Communists had long sought to avoid.
Today, food and medicine remain in short supply, rolling power outages are common, and the arrests of participants in the protests continue. And yet, anti-government demonstrations have become a regular feature of Cuban life. “It’s like being in hell,” said one shirtless protester who participated in an October 2022 demonstration that culminated in clashes with the country’s beret-clad security forces. “That’s why we’re out on the street, and we’ll keep coming out.”
CNN surveyed the landscape in Cuba one year after the 2021 protests and determined that Havana’s grip on its people was “tighter than ever.” But Cuba’s Communist Party did make some concessions to their unfortunate new reality—opening the economy up to private retail and authorizing small- and medium-sized businesses to operate on the island, for example. But a sharp rise in emigration in 2022, fueled by domestic repression and the inflation that followed currency reform suggests the ripples that began in the pandemic retain the potential to set off a tsunami.
The popular uprising that consumed the Sri Lankan regime owed its origins to the same conditions that plagued Cuba.
By the early summer of 2022, the hardships associated with the pandemic had become unendurable. Rolling protests, some violent, had become a feature of daily life in the island nation by that spring. The country was still reeling from a 2018 constitutional crisis, when Sri Lanka’s ruling family extralegally dismissed the nation’s prime minister, and a series of deadly bombings in 2019 when the pandemic hit. To stimulate the nation’s stalled economy, the government floated the Sri Lankan rupee, which encouraged remittances from abroad at the expense of the currency’s value at home. All the while, opposition to this government and its increasingly autocratic rule deepened and broadened.
In early July, Sri Lankan authorities announced a two-week shutdown of essential government services—an imperative necessitated by acute fuel and food shortages and severely diminished government revenues. In desperation, the government declared a national holiday in June to reduce the nation’s fuel consumption. That’s when it all came crashing down.
On July 9, what seemed like a routine street demonstration marched on the president’s mansion. The marchers were met with tear gas and even live rounds from police, which failed to deter the demonstrators and convinced a handful of them to hijack a military truck and smash down the gates protecting the president. He was not home, so demonstrators moved on to the prime minister’s residence, which they set on fire. Within hours, Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa announced that his dynastic government would dissolve. The former president would go into exile rather than face the verdict of his people.
The collapse of the Rajapaksa dominion was years in the making. It’s owed to many factors: incompetence, corruption, and the undue favoritism it showered on the military. But it was the pandemic policies that sent this regime careening into the abyss.
The loss of tourism and reduced remittances from abroad crushed the economy. The effort to buy the army’s loyalty irritated many more than it mollified. This government relied on coercion, patronage, the suppression of dissent, and the developed world’s largesse (of which the country’s abrupt and disastrous switch to all-organic farming was a part) to endure. It was not enough to withstand the pressures of the pandemic.
In October, Sri Lankan lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to restore the checks on presidential authority that the Rajapaksa regime had abolished in 2020. The independence of the judiciary and civil servants would be restored, and the appointment power that transformed the government in Colombo into a cartel would be disaggregated. The people who marched on their country’s power centers may not have done so in pursuit of abstractions such as liberty and better governance, but that is what they got.
The mullahs in Iran may avoid the fate meted out to Sri Lanka’s formerly ruling family. Still, the theocratic government in Tehran is facing the biggest threat to its existence in a generation. That, too, is due in large measure to the conditions brought on by Covid.
Iran was among the first nations to be hit and hit hard by the novel coronavirus that swept the planet in the winter of 2019–2020. Combined with the crippling effect of a restored sanctions regime following the JCPOA’s implosion, economic conditions in Iran quickly produced dramatic demonstrations and strikes.
Iran is no stranger to economic unrest. But these demonstrations soon distinguished themselves from protests that sometimes erupt over the rising cost of eggs or the scarcity of petrol. For one, they were much broader. They included factory workers and civil servants, coal miners and health workers, students and pensioners. Second, as was the case in Cuba, the protesters rallied around the cause of freedom. And freedom’s opponents treated the demonstrations like an existential threat.
The scale of the menace posed by Covid was still an academic notion in January 2020 when Iranian anti-government demonstrations erupted across the country in response to the regime’s admission that it had mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian commercial airliner. “They are lying that our enemy is America,” protesters chanted outside a Tehran-based university. “Our enemy is right here.”
In February 2020, evidence of clashes between Iranian demonstrators and police over the regime’s handling of the pandemic managed to evade the country’s censors. “No Gaza, no Lebanon, I sacrifice my life for Iran,” protesters chanted in July 2020—a refrain that serves as an indictment of the regime’s misplaced geopolitical priorities. “Death to Khamenei,” braver protesters intoned. By the spring, anti-regime demonstrators added harsh Covid-mitigation measures to their list of grievances, and they were met with a violent response from security services.
Episodes of civil unrest expanded in 2021. That summer, a combination of extreme drought and extreme mismanagement conspired to produce cuts to and rationing of existing water supplies. Demonstrations followed, and Iranian security forces shot and killed eight protesters, including a teenager, in the province of Khuzestan on July 15, 2021. But the water crisis was, in many ways, a Covid crisis. “Khuzestan is a ‘red’ province,” one NGO reported. “Women and other residents face even more problems given that a primary safety measure against contracting the virus is frequent hand-washing with soap and water.” The dueling imperatives of appeasing the regime’s conservative supporters in the hinterlands and containing the spread of the disease were in direct conflict.
Iran spent much of 2022 buffeted by rolling protests, spasms of violence in response to those protests, and “general lockdowns” designed to suppress both the civil unrest, when the news of Mahsa Amini’s death became public, and the spread of Covid. Amini was killed on September 16, 2022, by Iranian morality police for the crime of “improperly” wearing her mandatory headscarf. As of this writing, the mass demonstrations and attacks on regime targets inspired by her death have not yet abated. The protesters make no effort to disguise their aims: “Our target,” they chant, “is the whole regime.”
At the outset of the pandemic, American Enterprise Institute scholar Kenneth M. Pollack posited that Covid would not be the cause of the Iranian regime’s downfall. First, draconian anti-Covid interventions were not met with “mass demonstrations.” Second, the regime’s hardliners were its lockdown enthusiasts, while pragmatists initially advocated a more laissez-faire approach to Covid and initially won the argument. “Iranians may see the hardliners as the heroes and the pragmatists as the villains of the story,” Pollack wrote. Finally, he observed, the regime tends to close ranks when threatened.
In the two years since, the mass demonstrations arrived, and the demonstrators don’t seem to be making any fine distinctions between hardliners and pragmatists. More strikingly, Tehran has conceded one of the protesters’ core demands by pledging to dismantle the despised morality police. Whether the mullahs are sincere is yet to be determined. Still, the regime has reluctantly thrown one of the projects of Khomeini’s revolution under the bus to save its own neck. It may not be the last consequence of the 1979 revolution to meet its end before the Iranian people have had their final say.
China’s experience with Covid and its disruptions followed a trajectory similar to Iran’s, the foremost exception being that almost no one thought Iran had deftly handled the challenges posed by the pandemic. By contrast, much of the West convinced itself that China had the virus licked not despite but because of its authoritarian model.
“China’s bold approach to contain the rapid spread of this new respiratory pathogen has changed the course of a rapidly escalating and deadly epidemic,” the World Health Organization declared in early 2020. “They’ve basically contained the virus through technology-powered, authoritarian surveillance,” Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer agreed. Public health experts marveled over “what China did to beat the virus” and why “America couldn’t handle it.” It was an absurdly credulous response to the unreliable data Chinese officials produce for export, but this consensus wasn’t long-lived. The Chinese people saw to that.
In mid-March 2022, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China congratulated itself on the successful execution of a policy that hadn’t been formally articulated yet: its “dynamic Covid-zero approach.” Evidence of this policy’s existence had long been anecdotally available: off-and-on 2020-style lockdowns of whole cities, draconian tracking and tracing regimes, battalion-sized units of enforcers in hazmat suits patrolling the streets, and reports of makeshift camps for forcible quarantining where food, water, bedding, and human compassion were in short supply.
In April 2022, Shanghai was subjected to another lockdown, providing the Western world with a unique glimpse at the callousness of China’s approach to the pandemic. “In the past few days, a hot topic in WeChat groups has been whether sprouted potatoes were safe to eat, a few Shanghai residents told me,” New York Times columnist Li Yuan wrote. She described a nasty new standard of living in which residents foraged for bamboo shoots in parks and regarded rarities such as soft drinks as “hard currency.” Nightly, residents opened their windows and howled a cacophonous lament into the night. At least, they did until an unmanned drone hovered before them, blaring the haunting admonition “control your soul’s desire for freedom.” That reproach fell on deaf ears.
In May, students at China’s elite Peking University courted the dangers associated with protest by demonstrating openly against the social stratification that forced them into isolation while teachers and their families traveled freely. In June, anti-Covid-zero demonstrators discovered that the state had punished them by turning their mandatory health codes “red,” which functionally restricted Chinese from traveling or accessing services such as banking. Far from intimidating the public, the heavy-handed maneuver produced more protests.
In September, a bus full of Chinese citizens bound for a quarantine camp some 180 miles away from its point of origin crashed into a ditch, killing 27 people. This unnecessary loss of life sparked a wave of widespread anger toward the regime, and even Beijing’s reliable mouthpieces struggled to explain away the incident. In November, a fire erupted in a residential high-rise in Urumqi, one of the largest municipalities in China’s severely repressed Xinjiang Province. Ten people died.
The cumulative effect of this unnecessary death and hardship proved too much for the Chinese Communist Party to suppress. Massive demonstrations erupted in cities throughout the mainland. Beijing’s digital wall around the country collapsed in the face of civil unrest so widespread that news of it could not be contained.
Demonstrators called for an end, not just to China’s Covid-zero policy but to the regime that sponsored it. They held white sheets of paper aloft, both in mourning (white is the nation’s traditional funeral color) and to evade the sophisticated censorship technologies triggered by protest sloganeering. And they called for liberalization—more press freedoms, direct democracy, and the “rule of law.” Brave Chinese protesters clashed with police and openly demanded an end to Xi Jinping’s rule.
Quite unexpectedly, Beijing relented. The makeshift quarantining and testing facilities on China’s streets came down. The state promised to stop tracking some travel, reducing the likelihood that Chinese citizens will be forced into isolation if they inadvertently stumble into a Covid hot spot. Perhaps most auspiciously, the odious mobile app used to restrict the movement and access to social services of those who run afoul of China’s pandemic policies suddenly stopped working.
The demonstrators welcomed the thawing of China’s restrictive approach to Covid management, but it was not enough. They had bigger goals now. As one Chinese demonstrator told the New York Times in the aftermath of these reforms, “I will keep fighting.”
These were not distinct and episodic bouts of social unrest arising from a variety of offenses to local sensibilities. They are chapters in the same story.
The Covid pandemic and the political response to it catalyzed a counterrevolution in the West—a revolt against the dramatic alterations to the societal bargain favored by the activist class. In the totalitarian world, similar counterrevolutionary sentiments snowballed into something more conventionally revolutionary—and liberal—with all the potential to serve as the basis for something profoundly world-altering.
It should have been foreseeable, but it was not foreseen. What’s more, that collective oversight was not inadvertent. A conspiracy of shared interests emerged during the pandemic that contributed to a bout of collective blindness among those best positioned to observe emerging geopolitical trends.
“During a pandemic,” the Atlantic’s Ed Yong wrote in the summer of 2021, “no one’s health is fully in their own hands.” This reminder was occasioned by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s brief experiment in rescinding mandatory mask guidelines, allowing individuals to define their own level of risk. That was, in Yong’s mind, an ugly expression of America’s “national mythos” of “individualism,” which “valorizes independence and prizes personal freedom” and has “hamstrung America’s pandemic response.” Fortunately for him, the American press assured us that individualism was in bad odor.
Political forecasters consistently ignored the storm clouds descending on the developed world. And the political leaders and elected officials who take their cues from the press proceeded heedlessly apace.
In summer 2021, two-thirds of Canadians surveyed by the Association for Canadian Studies agreed with the notion that pandemic restrictions should remain in place despite their negative impacts on their personal wellness and economic security. Majorities or pluralities in Australia, Spain, Brazil, Italy, Sweden, France, and the U.K. backed the idea of “vaccine passports” as late as November 2021. In Germany, fewer than half of respondents said the Covid-mitigation regime had affected their lives at all.
Austria became the first nation in Europe to reimpose a hard lockdown on its people in December 2021, as Covid’s Omicron variant swept the planet. Greece, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands followed Austria’s lead to varying degrees, leading observers to fret not over the prospect of “overreacting” to the virus but the leverage their actions provide “populist parties.” Published in the journal Journalism Practice, researchers Mojca Pajnika and Majda Hrženjak coupled Europe’s modest backlash against Covid restrictions on the eve of 2022 with ominous anti-democratic sentiments.
But by the middle of 2022, the backlash against the Covid regime could no longer be downplayed even if it wasn’t instantly recognized for what it was: the most significant rejection of social engineering in decades.
In the United States, the counterrevolution had been quite effective. The police departments that were defunded amid a spasm of hostility toward law enforcement were quickly refunded in response to a crime spike. An unconstitutional assault on the rights of property owners by both the legislative and executive branches was put down by the courts. The schools that attempted to teach a revisionist history of the United States inspired a “parents’ revolt,” beating back the radicals at the ballot box in off-year elections in New Jersey and Virginia.
All indications were that the backlash against the revolutionary ethic Covid inspired would be a measurable force in the 2022 midterm elections. But on Election Day, the revolt fizzled. Or, at least, it seemed to have been cancelled out by competing factors. Voters delivered yet another mixed verdict on the state of the country, and Covid—both the receding disease and its effects on society—barely registered in exit polling.
In the wake of the midterms, little energy was devoted to uncovering what happened to the long-forecast reckoning with what we did during the pandemic. That lack of curiosity suited those who spent the pandemic attacking the motives of citizens who questioned the virtue of draconian mandates, onerous restrictions on social and economic activity, and organized campaigns of cultural blacklisting at its height. They wanted the fizzle, and they thought they got it.
What explains the anticlimax of its post-Covid moment in America? The most convincing theory is that so many of the issues that dominated the midterm elections—crime, inflation, education, and so on—were mere by-products of the pandemic. But that logic also implies that America’s reaction to Covid-inspired strictures was one of the world’s most efficient.
The street action that helped dismantle pandemic-related strictures in much of the world wasn’t necessary in the United States. And many of the Republicans who represented an alternative to Democratic governance made little effort to appeal to voters who had spent the last two years demanding the restoration of something approximating “normal.” A comprehensive reckoning with what the country did to itself during the pandemic would have to wait. But the restorationist counterreaction to the excesses of the pandemic had succeeded.
Pandemics are harbingers of revolution, and Covid was no exception. The arbiters of tasteful discourse did their best to convince anyone willing to listen to them that the public’s resolve to meet this challenge on their terms was unassailable, and deviation from that script was deviancy. History may yet regard this campaign of shame and suppression as a rearguard action.
No one can predict where the revolutionary spirits unleashed by the pandemic will take us in the years to come. But there can be no doubt that a revolutionary moment is upon us.
Featured Photo: AP Photo/John Minchillo
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