Hong Kong has thus far managed to avoid the brunt of the COVID-19 outbreak, with current reports listing only 1,026 active cases and 4 total deaths at the time of writing. This minimal loss of life is impressive when taking Hong Kong’s alarming population density into account, but the real casualty of the viral outbreak may be the pro-democracy protests.
The Hong Kong protests began in June 2019 as a response to the extradition bill, which would have allowed Hong Kong to arrest and transfer wanted individuals to countries that it does not have a preexisting extradition treaty with, which would notably include China. The bill was eventually suspended, but not before protesters expanded their demands to include an independent investigation into police brutality, release of all arrested protesters, universal suffrage for all Hong Kong citizens and the end of the government labeling protesters as rioters.
However, much of the momentum of the protests has been lost with the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19. Recent protests have become infrequent and have seen diminishing turnouts due to fear of spreading the virus. Reddit user NotABotStill commented that the virus has led to mostly everything in Hong Kong grinding to a halt, stating that “everyone here is extremely worried about the virus. Everyone wears surgical masks when outside their house and far, far fewer people go out for entertainment.”
The efforts of the city government to address the COVID-19 outbreak have also had a major effect on protests, with recent legislation banning all gatherings of four or more people. As a result, police crackdowns on public gatherings have been more fervent than ever before, resulting in continued violent and nonviolent backlash from protesters. On April 1, three Hong Kong students were arrested after throwing petrol bombs at the Tai Po police station. Their arrest spurned a number of small protests in the following week but nothing quite to the levels seen in the months prior to the viral outbreak.
Sadly, the protests will likely never reach the impressive turnouts and popular support from before. The momentum that the protests had before the virus was something extraordinary, but a long break such as this coupled with the election of a number of pro-democracy representatives to the District Council has placated many of those discontent with the actions of the government.
However, the most dedicated of protesters will likely press onward. Only one of the five demands of the protests have been met and it is unlikely that the movement will be snuffed out by either COVID-19 or government measures. Protests, although certainly less frequent and less attended, still occur even during this outbreak, showing the dedication of a number of the protesters.
The virus has dealt a crushing blow to the pro-democracy movement, but not a killing one. So if you should do anything right now it’s remember. Remember why the people of Hong Kong are protesting, because they’re fighting for something that we’re squandering right now. Free and fair democracy is starting to become something that’s hard to come by and if the people of Hong Kong have the will to fight for it, the least we can do is cheer them on.