The effects of COVID-19: Part one, civil unrest

Last updated:
Aug 18, 2020

To many, 2019 was the year of civil unrest. Small policy changes by governments across the developed and developing world - charging for online calls in Lebanon, raising ticket prices for the metro in Chile - ignited long-running protests, riots, and clashes with security forces. Usually, these were led by the young, educated, and disaffected.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put the brakes on almost all of these movements. But only for the time being.

Based on the latest intelligence and analysis, this article outlines how we think the current crisis will provide a temporary, short-term reprieve from civil unrest - before the renewal of hostilities once lockdown restrictions are either lifted or prolonged. We also discuss how, based on previous experience and evidence, this unrest could become a new contagion - spreading across national borders (including, as in 2019, across the West) and playing on shared experiences which are now familiar to the young in most countries: quarantine, unemployment, and mistrust of authority.

Warnings from the UN and IMF

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), a cornerstone of the global banking system and guarantor of significant public sector debt, sounded the alarm on the potential for widespread civil unrest as a result of COVID-19 in their April 2020 Fiscal Monitor publication. They stated that:

"Countries could be vulnerable to new waves of social unrest, for example, if support measures are seen as insufficient to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis and its economic fallout, or as unfair by favouring the wealthy, or when those measures are later withdrawn"

The UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, made similar warnings. Addressing the Security Council, he asserted that coronavirus “had the potential to increase social unrest and violence,” and would greatly undermine the world’s ability to combat the disease. “This is the fight of a generation and the raison d’etre of the United Nations itself.”

Both of these warnings are unprecedented in peacetime. International economic organisations, like the World Bank and IMF, and national governments are extremely concerned that prolonged lockdown - combined with an economic downturn so serious that it could contract markets by up to a third - could potentially undermine the social contract across both the developed and developing world.

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A temporary reprieve

Suspending demonstrations

Initially, individual lockdown and quarantine measures put in place by national governments seemed to suppress the fire of protest which burned throughout 2019. For the first time in almost a year, there are no weekly demonstrations and clashes with police in Paris - which characterised the struggle with Yellow Jacket groups. Left-leaning demonstrators in Chile have publicly stated that the coronavirus is “just what the government needed” to justify the suspension of the right to protest.

Activist groups in most countries affected by civil unrest in 2019 accept that to continue their demonstrations would be irresponsible, and would risk alienating the broader population they rely on for support. It’s unclear if this point of view will last forever.

In Latin America, 15 nations were due to hold contentious elections in some form in 2020: already, 12 of these have been suspended or postponed to help combat COVID-19. Elections can act as a ‘pressure release valve’ for protest movements and communal tensions, resulting in a more stable political environment or cementing dialogue which can bring all parties to the negotiating table. Even though their postponement has been broadly accepted, it’s unclear how long this unspoken treaty will last.

Effect on repressive and corrupt regimes

The current phase of the pandemic has also provided temporary benefits for repressive and corrupt regimes. Protests that have rocked Iraq and, according to some observers, led to the deaths of thousands of young Iraqis, have come to an abrupt halt. The effort by supporters of Juan Guaido in Venezuela to unseat President Nicolas Maduro is no longer tenable, due to both the government’s own restrictions and Guaido’s decision to halt his rallies in light of the current threat to public health.

The view from Africa

Although Africa is in the early stages of the outbreak, quarantines and lockdowns may have the opposite effect to those listed above. In Zimbabwe, individuals are beginning to take to the streets to protest against the government’s national quarantine. They state that, due to the country’s crumbling economy, they would be more likely to die of starvation than of coronavirus if they were forced out of work. This would not be the first time an epidemic has triggered widespread tensions and unrest on the continent.

In 2014, the Ebola outbreak led to significant instances of civil disobedience. The most infamous example was in the Liberian capital of Monrovia, when around 70,000 residents of the West Point neighbourhood woke up to find themselves barricaded in by security forces to prevent the spread of the virus. They responded by rioting.

Greater instability to come

This temporary relief from broad-based unrest is also reliant on an economic equivalent of the ‘Phoney War’. Although governments in most countries have warned that tough times lie ahead, it’s too early for most families to have felt the direct effect of the largest economic contraction since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

As time passes, it’s becoming clear that many will not have jobs to come back to. Entire industries may no longer be viable, and frustration with the slow pace of fiscal stimulus packages may lead some to decide that their share of the benefit pie will never arrive. It’s at this point where we’ll likely see a transition into a new phase - one of greater civil unrest and instability.

COVID-19 as a trigger for civil unrest

This reduction in the ‘space’ for civil unrest and demonstrations is likely to be temporary. We’re already seeing COVID-19 as a trigger for isolated unrest and demonstration, including in the West. Jacob Wallenberg, the Swedish industrialist best known for being a shareholder of some of Sweden’s largest firms (including Ericsson, ABB and SAS) recently expressed his alarm at the current state of the global economy.

"There will be no recovery. There will be social unrest. There will be violence. Citizens will suffer dramatically... some will die, others will feel awful"

A number of social studies experts have asserted that, most of the time, communities respond to crises by coming together and expressing mutual support - this was known as ‘blitz spirit’ during the Second World War. Current evidence, however, suggests that this may have a time limit.

Examples from Europe

Tensions are reportedly increasing in Italy’s poorest regions, especially in the south, following months of lockdown. UK publications such as the Guardian and the Times have identified that as the poorest begin to run out of food and money, there are very few options left but to consider taking to the streets.

This is particularly the case where individuals work on the so-called ‘black’ market, without a contract and without paying tax and social security. These people are out of reach of most stimulus programmes. Police have begun investigating Facebook groups such as “National Revolution”, which call on the public to begin looting stores and stealing from supermarkets as a form of protest.

We’ve also seen individual incidents further igniting tensions with communities, usually involving the police enforcing lockdown in a heavy-handed way.

Local police in the Basque country of Spain, the Ertzaintza, were filmed in the street stopping a young man and his mother - both originally from Morocco - and beating the former with a truncheon when he refused to provide a valid reason for being outside during quarantine. The video was posted to social media and caused significant outrage among Basques who have historically had a poor view of policing funded and organised by the Spanish state. An incident in Brussels on 11 April, where a male ran a police checkpoint enforcing lockdown and was subsequently killed in a car crash during a police chase, had a similar effect on community tensions in Belgium.

Examples from the US

Disagreements over the efficacy and legality of quarantine, fuelled by online conspiracy theories about the nature and origin of the coronavirus, are also leading to incidents of civil disobedience: this is particularly the case in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Idaho rancher Ammon Bundy, mostly known for previously instigating an armed standoff with the FBI over land rights in Oregon in 2016, led an Easter Sunday service for 30 people - many armed - holding placards calling on people to “Defy Martial Law!”. Demonstrations at state capitals against lockdowns have also occurred in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Lansing, Michigan. The latter included around 30 individuals taking position on the steps of the state capitol building armed with semi-automatic assault rifles and body armour. The protest in Raleigh was organised by a Facebook group called ReopenNC, which currently has over 30,000 members.

Civil unrest as a new contagion

If COVID-19, and its subsequent economic effects, acts as a trigger for increasing unrest and civil disobedience, we’re likely to face a new contagion spreading across borders. The warning sounded by the International Monetary Fund alluded to this directly in April 2020:

“Protests often occur in waves, signalling a potential contagion effect, including across borders. Examples include the Arab Spring in the early 2010s and in Latin America in 2019.”

They further asserted that, although national protest movements usually have a very unique motivator, “the triggers for protests are often related to specific types of economic policy measures that have commonalities across countries."

A key contributor to this effect will be how the pandemic affects the developing world. The rise of Islamic State in Europe, and before that Al Qaeda, has demonstrated how the stability of Western democracies is closely linked to the stability of a country’s immediate neighbourhood.

Professor Nic Cheeseman, Professor of Democracy at the University of Birmingham, expressed this clearly in a recent opinion piece for Foreign Policy. “The end of the coronavirus crisis could be followed by a series of economic collapses across the developing world,” which in turn is likely to significantly reduce the ability of governments to subsidise fuel and food for their increasingly unemployed populations. Similar pressures led to the Arab Spring conflicts of the early 2010s.

‘Gerontocracies’, states run by a small and ageing political elite, are particularly at risk. Iran suffered one of the initial, and worst, COVID-19 outbreaks. Reports from inside the country suggest the virus has killed a number of senior military and political leaders, including the chief advisor to Ayatollah Khamenei. Other nations across the Middle East and North Africa fall into this category, as well as large economies such as Nigeria and even India.

The death of a significant political, military, or civil leader in these nations can cause a dangerous power vacuum potentially leading to internal conflict and civil strife. In Burkina Faso, a nation already struggling with an insurgency of its own, the ministers for foreign affairs, the interior, education, and mines have all tested positive for COVID-19.

Western democracies are not immune to the effects of these events in the developing world. Conflicts in one country can lead to civil unrest and ‘sympathy’ attacks in another - as demonstrated by the rise of the Islamic State following the Arab Spring protests - and can cause destabilising refugee flows. In the late 2010s, these refugee flows led to a significant rise in far-right activity, leading to protests and counter-protests which continue in cities like Paris to this day. Destabilisation also needs to be seen in the context of unemployment and frustration in a post-COVID West.

Civil commotion in the UK and North America

Assuming, after a temporary reduction due to quarantine and lockdown, there is a significant spread of unrest and civil disobedience across borders - linked to a reduction in economic activity - would North America and the United Kingdom be immune? History suggests not.

The US, Canada, and UK all suffered from areas of unrest following the Great Recession in 2008. The advent of social media, enabling activists to form large decentralised protest groups made up of the disaffected, led to the creation of protest ‘brands’ that are now household names - the Occupy movement, the Tea Party movement, and anti-austerity groups like UK Uncut. These protests were a direct result of both the economic contraction suffered across the West, as well as the perceived ‘botched’ fiscal stimulus packages directed mainly at the banking sector.

We can compare the economic impact of the Great Recession in 2008 to what may be expected following COVID-19 (shown below). Based on this data, we’re likely to see more intense social unrest than in the aftermath of the Great Recession - if the link between economic downturns and civil instability holds. This is particularly true when factoring in additional flashpoints between the police and communities due to quarantines and lockdown, refugee flows from developing nations suffering from significant economic default, and protests triggered by perceived breaches of human rights as new conflicts arise out of the power vacuums left by ageing political elites suffering from the virus.

Clearly, this is - if not the worst case - a very serious scenario and other futures are possible. The critical question is whether this future seems plausible given our previous experiences? Whether the current societal and economic picture is worse than the unrest we have seen in the past?

At present, we feel the answer to both of these questions is yes.

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