Eight reasons why COVID-19 may lead to political violence
Analysis Conflict and Fragility

Eight reasons why COVID-19 may lead to political violence

09 Apr 2020 - 10:31
Photo: Spanish troops deployed in response to COVID-19. © Flickr / NATO
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What the aftermath of the corona crisis will bring us is a valid question, but often we are very bad at reading the signs. We do know however what the ingredients and indicators are for outbreaks of rebellion and political violence. Peter Knoope sees eight reasons why the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to political instability inside and even between countries.

In recent days US President Trump and Brazilian President Bolsonaro have dramatically changed their approach to the corona outbreak. From downplaying the crisis initially, they both turned to a hands-on and active approach. This should not surprise us.

Both Presidents depend on popular votes to stay in power after the crisis. It is known that during a crisis situation, when it is a matter of life and death, people demand strong leadership: tell me ‘what to do’, ‘when to do it’ and ‘how to do it’ – and tell me in clear language.

People want to, and will, obey. They also want to belong to an “us”. We are in this together and we will follow the leader that will save us. It took a while for Trump and Bolsonaro to understand this, but they finally did.

Hospital Corpsman dons surgical gloves aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy. © U.S. Pacific Fleet / Flickr
Hospital Corpsman dons surgical gloves aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy. © U.S. Pacific Fleet / Flickr

There is also a predictable pattern in the secondary responses to any major crisis. Once things calm down, and the impact of the crisis and the spectre of effective and ineffective policy decisions taken to manage it become clear, criticism will rise.

Academics and analysts will throw the first stones. Journalists will contribute their two cents, artists and comedians will raise their voice, bloggers and angry twitter users will express their frustrations and politicians or popular voices will lead the opposition. A debate may be the result, policy changes will be implemented and promises will be demanded and made that it will not happen again. The bigger the crisis, the more intense the criticism in the aftermath.

An unpredictable crisis?
The unpredictable element in this crisis is exactly that magnitude. We have never seen anything like this. Politicians have referred to the magnitude of this crisis in very strong terms: we have heard that it is ‘the worst since WWII’. The “never again” mood that dominated after WWII has led to major changes.

If it is true that the COVID-19 crisis can be compared to WWII in its impact, then the question what the aftermath of this crisis will bring is a valid question. The problem is that projecting the future is very hard to do. History, but also all the early warning and foresight mechanisms, has shown us that we are very bad at reading signs. We never see it coming. We walk in the dark.

We do know, however, what the ingredients and indicators are for outbreaks of rebellion and political violent behaviour. So, if we know those, what if we compare those ingredients with the characteristics of today’s situation? Could we get an idea of what we may be in for in the coming years?

In a situation of political and societal stress, like the COVID-19 pandemic, political instability may become a trigger for (increased) unrest

I can see eight reasons why the COVID-19 pandemic may lead to political instability inside and even between countries. These are the issues political leaders should keep in mind, because in a situation of political and societal stress they may become a trigger for (increased) unrest.

1. Major differences in welfare and income within societies tend to increase the possibility of uproar and political violence
In generic terms, any society that has major differences in income between different groups in society is more vulnerable to political violence. The bigger the income gap the bigger the risk that politics turns violent. Where political and economic space is shared amongst the same elitist group, this risk is imminent.

A combination of political suppression and well-organised intelligence plus law enforcement controlled by the elite is often the recipe to prevent revolutions. The COVID-19 crisis may, however, lead to a weakening of the suppressive state structures and to a further alienation of the general population from the elite.

Repression of a population that is at risk of dying may be counterproductive because it has nothing left to lose

In some countries the response to COVID-19 is presently exploited by the elite to increase the control over the population. There is no guarantee that such is a durable solution to prevent an outbreak of violence. Repression of a population that is at risk of dying may be counterproductive because it has nothing left to lose.

What will happen in countries like South Africa, Brazil, India and US, where differences between rich and poor are enormous, is unpredictable, but the risk of outbreak of violence is evident. In some countries big chunks of the population suffer from poverty and lack of economic perspectives to begin with. The COVID-19 crisis may bring this issue to a boiling point.

With the upcoming economic crisis, the issue of distribution of wealth (or poverty) will even become more pressing. Governments that want to prevent uprisings should be aware.

2. Competition over basis needs leads to political instability and the potential for recruitment into political violence
We have seen demonstrations all over the MENA region related to lack of government services or unequal distribution of these services. The COVID-19 crisis will expose this weakness even more. Access to healthcare will be limited and will be available for some but certainly not for all.

A Hospital Corpsman pre-screens Marines for the coronavirus disease. © Official U.S. Navy Page / Flickr
A Hospital Corpsman pre-screens Marines for the coronavirus disease. © Official U.S. Navy Page / Flickr

In light of the potentially high numbers of effected patients, the lack of adequate care will be strongly felt. Also because the virus seems egalitarian in its choice of victims. Ministers, Princes, and Presidents get infected. They will claim the limited health facilities. In this situation of personal stress, the behaviour of groups is predictably rebellious.

3. Availability of arms and disrespect for, or resistance to, the monopoly of violence of the state
A combination of large-scale availability of arms and high levels of societal stress can be deadly. Especially if the monopoly of the state to use violence is questioned. The stress will make some citizens respond upon emotional impulses with the use of arms if these are readily available.

South Africa is one of the countries where small arms are a commonplace and societal tensions are high. But it is not much better in the US, where arms sales rocketed over the last weeks. The use of violence by the state is contested and the use of arms to protect oneself against “others”, including the state, is considered a fundamental right.

Last but certainly not least, the possession of arms is a normality in large parts of the MENA region – a region that was already unstable before this crisis – and in big chunks of Latin America, where violence is a normal part of everyday life and “law enforcement” is considered a legitimate enemy of armed gangs.

4. Domestic violence as a precursor to political violence
High levels of domestic violence serve as an early warning indicator for societal unrest and political violence. Apparently, there is a link between what men do at home and what they do outside the house.

With the worldwide lockdown and the related stress, the levels of domestic violence increase significantly. The frustrations need some form of an outlet valve. Political violence becomes a potential. The victims are initially those who live in the same house. That is bad enough in itself. Yet as we know from experience, this may be taken to a different level over time.

The signals are red. It is still early to tell whether these increased and alarming levels of domestic violence will indeed lead to rebellions or riots, but the call for caution for the impact on individuals and society of the phenomenon by the UN is appropriate for more than one reason.  

5. Alternative paradigms and charismatic leaders could use identity politics to encourage collective rebellion and violent action
‘We are in this together’ is the mantra of many political leaders, but the reality is sometimes different. In the COVID-19 crisis, elderly people are singled out. Youngsters feel they are not at risk and many are behaving irresponsibly according to the news.

The Belgian government is blaming the Dutch for their wrong approach. Chinese are the blame for everything. Stay away from Italians. Stay away from Asians and old people since they may be a health hazard. The question is how long lasting these stigmas will prove to be.

Mobilisation of these identity elements is a potential threat and may lead to xenophobia and political tensions and even violence, for instance against Chinese or Italian tourists, workers or otherwise. In a number of African countries, both Chinese and Europeans have already been targeted and attacked as the bringers of a deadly disease.

It may indefinitely change the way Africans look at Europeans and Chinese. Very similar to the way the WWII changed the perspective of formerly colonised people. Suddenly perspectives shifted because the European and American soldiers did not fit the ideal picture of Westerners. A new wave of anti-Chinese or anti-colonial sentiments and behaviour may be the result.

It is not unthinkable that this stigmatisation may be mobilised by brokers of violence. The one thing that these brokers of violence need is an alternative paradigm. A narrative. The official narrative, based on academic, epidemiological and medical knowledge is palatable for many. But, very much like the disbelieve in academic understanding of climate change and terrorism, there are strong alternative narratives about.

For some, COVID-19 is proof that the West is bad

They vary from a conspiracy theory that the West is trying to blame the Chinese via the Chinese that are trying to ruin the planet, all the way to the theory that God or Allah and nature itself is getting back at us. For some, COVID-19 is the proof that the West is bad.

An alternative narrative is known to be able to serve as a mobilising factor for political violence. White supremacy thinkers, religious fanatics and anti-establishment movements may develop strong and attractive alternative narratives to mobilise anger to advocate violent responses and actions. We have not seen a global charismatic leader that mobilises the anger around COVID-19 yet.

Drive-through COVID-19 Mobile Testing Center in New York. © New York National Guard / Flickr
Drive-through COVID-19 Mobile Testing Center in New York. © New York National Guard / Flickr

There are some examples of local religious leaders that resist the call for obedience to isolation and lockdown. Leaders of different faith groups in the US and the Middle East have tried to resist the approach to suppress the virus, calling upon the need for people to pray and come together out of a religious duty. They still lack sufficient charisma and convincing power. The fact that a leader has not stepped forward is re-assuring, but no guarantee for future success.

6. Justice and management systems needed to prevent anger and frustration function under stress
The need for a functioning non-corrupted law enforcement, conflict resolution and management system is evident to prevent anger and frustration from being used for political mobilisations. In the present situation, all these systems function under stress.

Violations of new restrictions are dealt with, sometimes in a very strict manner, but courts are non-functional, prisons are emptied and “justice” is put on hold in many environments. This may pose risks.

Not only should law enforcement avoid derailing into violations of human rights and human dignity, but the necessary elements of existing local, traditional, and other formal and informal justice systems should also be protected to avoid perceptions of injustices.

7. Scary things are happening while most people look away and have other issues on their mind
Never waste a good crisis. While the whole world focuses on COVID-19 the US is raising stakes in Iraq. Tensions are building and the battle is on. We should not be surprised if the situation gets fully out of hand and leads to an armed conflict while we are focusing on our health.

Similarly, Boko Haram is hyperactive in Nigeria and Chad, exploiting the vacuum created by the lack of attention. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating very quickly. In several countries, elections will be postponed, the situation in Mali, Libya, Sudan and CAR may complicate further, etcetera. Although it is tempting to ignore, we should not look away and be one-track minded.

8. Distrust in the government
The levels of trust between governments and the people has eroded generally over the last twenty years. From Tunisia and Lebanon to France and Nigeria. Political unrest, revolutions and even violence can be (and is in many environments) a result of that distrust.

A major crisis like the COVID-19 is potentially part of the solution. Trust in governments is on the increase, but it is delicate. Tables may turn. Distrust and anger may be next on the menu. Much will depend on the way leadership will survive critical questions now and in the immediate future. A lot needs to be done to keep trust at the present level.

Current high levels of trust in the government is delicate. The same leadership that is obeyed at present, can be blamed for the loss of lives tomorrow

Soon, people will start to ask questions and the blame game may take off at unprecedented levels. The same leadership that is obeyed and followed at present will be blamed for the devastating loss of lives of loved ones tomorrow. It starts in Italy today and it may grow and reach high levels in other countries somewhere in the autumn of this year.

A strong unified message about necessary changes as an outcome of this crisis is needed to prevent a breakdown of trust in international structures and governance. A breakdown with huge consequences. All ingredients are present for a second crisis after the immediate one. A crisis characterised by the deepening of the crisis of trust between states and their citizens.

States are presently strengthening their control over their citizens while we (and because we) care for your survival. But today’s obedience must be handled with great care. Control over people must be handled with reluctancy to keep a vulnerable and delicate level of trust in place. Governments should not make the mistake to take things for granted.

Today, most people obey the strict measures but the obedience is conditional. The state will lead the potential victims of this disease into safety. The condition is that the state proves that the trust is deserved. Trust must be reciprocal. Obedient citizens expect that they will be given back the space they left. The space that is offered for the state to guide and heal them. Any perceived betrayal of that trust may come at a price.


Peter Knoope
Senior Associate Fellow at the Clingendael Institute