Days of protests and violence following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer have shaken cities across the United States, with nightly curfews locking down populations already reeling from months of COVID-19 restrictions.
And this deadly convergence of disease, violence and racism are mirrored in other nations around the world.
All across America
A popular opinion is that the COVID-19 pandemic has been the social-injustice straw that broke the civil society camel’s back.
New York Times op-ed columnist Michelle Goldberg put it succinctly by calling out “a pandemic that’s laid bare murderous health and economic inequalities” that have defined American life for decades and more.
The resulting protest movement has achieved a level of intensity and scale not seen since the 1960s.
And yet, protests both peaceful and violent have become commonplace in the United States throughout the 2010s, as police brutality against African-Americans has been revealed and widely circulated by viral videos depicting the killing of Eric Garner, Philandro Castile, and others.
Indeed, throughout American history, harsh response to protesters by law enforcement, along with escalating destruction of businesses, public buildings, and other infrastructure, is in no way unusual.
All around the world
Nor is this convergence of violent protest and authoritarian abuse unusual worldwide.
Police violence is part of the day-to-day fabric of life in numerous countries, from police states, where it is normalized, to de jure democracies — that is, democracies in name only.
And in many nations COVID-19 has exacerbated police violence, as law enforcement authorities have been given sweeping powers to enforce stay-at-home measures, shop closures, and other orders imposed by the state to prevent the spread of the disease.
Often police violence is directed against the poorest and most marginalized members of these societies.
Global plague — of violence
There’s nothing unique to the United States about authoritarian responses to COVID-19, police brutality and racism.
In late April, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights listed the countries with the “most troubling allegations” of abuses among the 80 countries that at the time that were in states of pandemic-related emergency.
These were Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Honduras, Jordan, Morocco, Cambodia, Uzbekistan, Iran and Hungary.
A U.N. official later stated that “several dozen more” countries could have been included on the list, due to a widespread “toxic lockdown culture.”
Indeed, the problem is universal, affecting developing nations, dictatorships, and the standard-bearers of western Europe.
France and the United Kingdom, in particular, have seen numerous protests against homegrown police brutality and racism against ethnic minorities.
Pandemic fears and police
Protests around the world, in solidarity with American demonstrations against the killing of George Floyd, have proliferated.
One participant in the United Kingdom told Agence France Presse: “When you take someone’s life, the way that happened, then it does something to you wherever you are in the world … It’s a worldwide thing. It happens in America and we have to show solidarity.”
Looming in the background is the fear that the protests, which often have disregarded COVID-19 social distancing precautions, will lead to more cases of the virus and further population-wide outbreaks.
This closes a bitter loop, as minorities in the United States have already been over-represented in the more than 100,000 deaths and several million COVID-19 infections across the country
But regardless of how closely linked poverty, racism, COVID-19, police brutality, and other factors may be in a given country, there are basic human rights guidelines for governments to follow.
These include “10 Basic Human Rights Standards for Law Enforcement Officials” (PDF) from Amnesty International, and guidance from the United Nations (PDF), that, ironically, have been recognized and adopted in some form by many or most of the countries where police abuses are ongoing.
There’s no irony at all, then, that protests against police violence amidst a global pandemic have swept the world.