Sickness or Silence: Social Movement Adaptation to COVID-19


How have activists responded to the COVID-19 pandemic? While there have been many anecdotal reports of the pandemic’s impact, there has been little to no cross-national comparative research examining how movements discouraged from protesting on the streets because of the risk of infection have or have not continued their activities through the COVID-19 pandemic. In this paper we present findings from a survey of 550 activists in 27 countries, reporting on how the pandemic has affected their perceptions of tactical adaptation, public interest, and long-term strategic planning. We also present results from a survey experiment testing the impact of COVID-19 risk and pandemic lockdown policies on activists’ willingness to join a street protest. We find that while the pandemic has posed significant challenges for activists, activists believe they have been able to respond with tactical adaptation and innovations, primarily with a shift to digital activism. Most activists also perceived an increase in public interest for their movements across various issue areas and were optimistic about their movement’s ability to advance its goals in the future. These findings speak to the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the potential for social mobilization and the short and projected long-term effects of the pandemic on political stability.

Journal of International Affairs, 73(2) 23-42
Jonathan Pinckney
Jonathan Pinckney
Assistant Professor

My research interests include civil resistance, democratization, and peacebuilding.