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Violent phase in pandemic hits as protests break out around globe

Twenty months into the coronavirus pandemic, a weary world is seeing protests – many violent – break out around the globe with people in vaccine-rich Western countries angry over the introduction of strict vaccination regimes and people in poorer nations fed up with broken economies and their governments' inability to bring the pandemic under control.

It's a picture that depicts what the World Health Organization has been warning about for weeks: The pandemic is creating a dangerous two-track world where there are too many vaccines being stockpiled in richer countries and not nearly enough in poorer ones.

Early Monday morning, after a week of debates that went into the night, the French parliament passed a controversial law that will make it soon mandatory to show a so-called “health pass” to get into cafes, restaurants, cinemas, trains, buses and most other indoor public spaces.

French President Emmanuel Macron, facing reelection in April and the threat of a new wave of infections, on July 12 took a gamble by taking the global lead to effectively make vaccination mandatory for anyone choosing to live a normal life in France.

The legislation has sparked large street protests across France and clashes with police in Paris have turned very ugly with police tackling people to the ground and spraying tear gas to disperse angry crowds. Although a large majority of French support Macron's tough measures, large numbers see the new vaccine passports as tyrannical.

On Monday, while on a visit to French Polynesia, Macron urged national unity and asked, “What is your freedom worth if you say to me ‘I don’t want to be vaccinated,’ but tomorrow you infect your father, your mother or myself?”

He said there are “people who are in the business of irrational, sometimes cynical, manipulative mobilization” against vaccination.

Similar passports are being introduced or contemplated in many other countries where vaccines are plentiful – such as in Great Britain, Italy, Greece and Australia. All four countries also have witnessed clashes between protesters and police in recent days. Videos show wild scenes of incidents where protesters assaulted riot police and lines of police have attacked demonstrators. The United States is witnessing its own protests.

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While frustration is high with policies to force all adults to get vaccinated in richer countries, protests in poorer countries make for a far more dangerous cocktail of unrest.

On Sunday, massive violent protests broke out in Tunisia over a spike in coronavirus cases and growing anger over slow vaccination in that North African nation.

By Monday the country was thrown into a major crisis when President Kais Saied sacked Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi, the leader of a rival party with an Islamist background, suspended parliament and declared he was taking over the reins of the government. Mechichi's party, Ennahda, called it a “coup against the Tunisian democracy.”

Tunisia is seen as a beacon of hope for democratic progress in the Arab world, but now the country of 11.8 million people faces an uncertain, and potentially, perilous turn of events. The 2011 Arab Spring protests began in Tunisia and saw Tunisians bring down long-time ruler Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, seen by many as a dictator. Tunisia was the only success story from the Arab Spring.

Similarly, major protests have erupted in Cuba and South Africa as frustration mounts among populations devastated by their pandemic-crumpled economies.

Earlier this month, South Africa was gripped by the worst riots since the end of apartheid. More than 330 people were killed over five days and looters ransacked hundreds of stores in shopping malls and industrial parks in the cities of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban. The riots in Durban forced South Africa's largest refinery to shut down temporarily and roads were closed. The riots were sparked by the arrest of former President Jacob Zuma on corruption charges, but experts say the pandemic's economic toll played a big part in making the riots so massive and violent.

“Many observers point to the devastating economic impact of the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, which further widened the gap between rich and poor in a country that was already among the world’s most unequal before the pandemic,” said Pauline Bax, an Africa policy expert at the Crisis Group, in a briefing note.

“Joblessness rose along with food prices. Unemployment among youth aged 15-24 has reached 63%,” Bax said. “Hunger is widespread in sprawling townships where many of the poorest live.”

In Cuba, thousands of people took to the streets on July 11, a Sunday, in a rare show of defiance against the communist regime, leading to numerous arrests. They were the biggest protests in nearly three decades.

The protests were sparked in part over economic suffering and accusations that the government has stumbled in handling the pandemic, experts said.

“They are all risking lengthy jail terms to demand access to scarce food, medicine, and COVID vaccines,” the Eurasia Group, a political risk firm, said in briefing note.

To contain the virus, Cuba barred international travelers and that crippled its tourist industry, a vital source of foreign cash for Cuba's state-run economy, already buckling under tougher U.S. sanctions imposed by the Trump White House.

Making the situation more tense, the island nation is in the midst of its worst COVID-19 outbreak yet with more than 7,000 new cases being reported each day. Cuba says it has developed two vaccines, but it is struggling to find enough needles to ramp up the inoculation drive.

Elise Labott, a professor at the American University, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine that the unrest in South Africa and Cuba comes as many countries face “a perfect storm of preexisting social, economic, and political hardships, which fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic only inflamed further.”

“They are merely a foreshadowing of the post-coronavirus global tinderbox that’s looming as existing tensions in countries across the world morph into broader civil unrest and uprisings against economic hardships and inequality deepened by the pandemic,” Labott wrote.

Teneo, a political risk firm in London, said in a recent analysis that the pandemic has reversed previously declining levels of global extreme poverty.

“The absolute number of people living in extreme poverty has grown again for the first time since 1997,” Teneo said. “Against this backdrop, the current social and economic discontent could lead to widespread protests in some countries in the coming months and years.”

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, is calling on richer nations to do more to get vaccines distributed around the world.

“There remains a shocking imbalance in the global distribution of vaccines,” he said recently during a trip to Tokyo, where the Olympics are being played in the shadow of the pandemic. “This has created a two-track pandemic: the haves are opening up, while the have-nots are locking down.”

He said that of more than 3.5 billion vaccines distributed globally, more than 75% of those have gone to 10 countries.

“Vaccine inequity is not only a moral failure, it is also epidemiologically and economically self-defeating,” Tedros said.

Frederic Bizard, a French economist, cautioned that Macron's mandatory vaccine policy – like others – may backfire.

“While using vaccines as a political tool may be politically advantageous and benefit public health in the short term, it may be detrimental in the long term,” Bizard wrote in Paris-based daily newspaper Les Echos.

Although Macron's surprise decision prompted large numbers of French to sign up for vaccination, he wondered if this top-down approach to handling the pandemic will wind up sowing more distrust.

“Measures such as compulsory vaccination or the abrupt application of the 'health pass' are likely to exacerbate pre-existing distrust and societal fractures in the long term,” he said.

He also questioned the rush to vaccinate entire populations when much of the world remains without a steady supply of vaccines.

“While more than 50% of the population of European countries and the United States are vaccinated, less than 1% of the population of poor countries have gotten the jab,” he wrote. “Rich countries’ obsession with vaccinating those under 18 years of age and preparing stocks for a third booster dose completely ignores the reality of the unvaccinated global south.”

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While frustration is high with policies to force all adults to get vaccinated in richer countries, protests in poorer countries make for a far more dangerous cocktail of unrest.