The Coronavirus Could Topple Governments Around the World

The coronavirus pandemic might not disrupt politics in wealthy Western democracies, but it is likely to unleash political instability—and even regime change—in developing countries already suffering from an economic crisis.

A man and his family walk past closed vegetable stalls.
A man and his family walk past closed vegetable stalls in Harare, Zimbabwe, on March 30. Jekesai Njikizana/AFP/Getty Images

On March 27, Britain’s bombastic prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced on Twitter that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Two other high-ranking British officials—the country’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, and Johnson’s main advisor, Dominic Cummings—soon followed him into self-isolation. The news was widely reported and sent shock waves through the political establishment.

Political leaders are usually insulated from major health scares by their wealth and access to private health care. But the coronavirus has already impacted leaders across the world—afflicting officials in the United States and Australia, as well as Sophie Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian prime minister.

In Italy, Nicola Zingaretti, the head of the Democratic Party—a partner in the coalition government—has been infected, and Roberto Stella, the president of the medical guild in Varese province, has died. In France, Culture Minister Franck Riester is sick, along with five members of parliament.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic and learn how it’s affecting countries around the world.]

In the United States, rumors regarding the health of President Donald Trump have been dampened after it was revealed that he tested negative for the virus, but other U.S. politicians have not been so lucky. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has the virus; in New York, two members of the State Assembly have been infected, as has Francis Suarez, the mayor of Miami. Many other prominent figures have also gone into self-isolation, including Sens. Rick Scott and Ted Cruz.In countries where politics are more personalized, the death of a leader can trigger damaging succession battles.

Despite these high-profile cases, democratic institutions in all of these countries are likely to be robust enough to cope with the short-term incapacity or isolation of their leaders. If worse comes to worst, they also have tried and tested succession mechanisms to select new cabinet members, prime ministers, and presidents.

The consequences will be very different in countries where political institutions are weaker and where the illness or death of a leader has been known to generate the kind of power vacuum that might inspire rival leaders, opposition parties, or the military to launch a power grab. This is a particular problem in countries where checks and balances are weak and political parties don’t have strong decision-making mechanisms, which is true in parts of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and post-communist Europe. According to the researchers Rodger Govea and John Holm, 61 percent of leadership transitions in Africa are “unregulated,” and many of these episodes have resulted in a political crisis.

In countries where politics are more personalized, the death of a leader can trigger damaging succession battles that can split the ruling party and, in the worst cases, encourage a military coup. It is therefore extremely worrying that senior political officials and leaders have also contracted COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in countries such as Burkina Faso, Iran, and Nigeria—countries that are already unstable gerontocracies.

Indeed, it is particularly worrying how far the coronavirus is spreading within the political elite in countries where many senior politicians are over 60, making them especially at risk. In Burkina Faso, a country that has experienced more than its fair share of instability in recent years—and which is currently struggling against an insurgency—the ministers of foreign affairs, education, the interior, and mines have all tested positive.

In Nigeria, one of the most economically and politically important countries on the continent, Abba Kyari, the chief of staff to 77-year-old President Muhammadu Buhari, has come down with the disease. Although media outlets have reported that Buhari tested negative, this has not stopped damaging rumors that the often ill president has been incapacitated from circulating in Twitter.

The world should also be paying close attention to Iran, where media censorship has obscured the extent of the crisis. So far, two vice presidents and three cabinet officials are known to have gotten the virus. It is also estimated that 10 percent of parliament and many prominent figures within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps are sick—including a senior advisor to the 80-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, raising questions about his health.Any prolonged vacuum at the heart of government increases the risk of political crisis.

In all of these countries, any prolonged vacuum at the heart of government increases the risk of political crisis.

A leadership crisis is just one of the potential sources of political instability the coronavirus could spark. Others include the risk of popular unrest and the debt crises that will soon engulf many countries around the world. Along with the fact that some of the main providers of foreign aid are now preoccupied with their own financial crises, there is a serious risk that politically and economically weak states will face a perfect storm of elite deaths, debt, mass unemployment, and social unrest.

Political unrest will often be driven from below. In countries where poverty is widespread, health systems are weak, and the cost of food is high, citizens are already under intense financial pressure. Despite earning the least, those who live in slum areas around capital cities often have to pay more for access to water and food than those who have valuable properties in the city centers. While the cramped conditions of slum living make it implausible to self-isolate, limited and inconsistent income make it impossible to buy in bulk—or to stay home for weeks on end without working and risk starvation. For many of the poorest people in the world, hunger is just a few days away.

The measures taken by many governments to deal with the coronavirus are only likely to increase these pressures, not least because they undermine many of the coping mechanisms that individual societies have innovated to manage financial insecurity. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has banned people from leaving their homes for three weeks. This triggered a mass exodus from cities and considerable panic as migrant workers attempted to return home without transport; one person reportedly died of exhaustion after attempting to walk 168 miles to his village. Modi later asked for “forgiveness” for the impact of the lockdown on the poor but said the measures had to remain in place.

Isolation and quarantine orders are having a similar impact elsewhere. In Zimbabwe, where the cost of food was already prohibitive due to rampant inflation, hungry citizens have argued against a lockdown on the basis that they’ll “die of hunger first.” Already, the Nigerian and Rwandan governments have initiated programs designed to feed vulnerable families. There is a serious risk that when governments cannot afford to do this, people will feel forced to breach lockdown, resulting in clashes with the security forces.

Already, there have been sporadic incidents of unrest in a number of countries, including prison protests in Italy. Meanwhile, heavy-handed efforts to enforce the curfew threaten to further erode public confidence in the government and the security forces. There are reports of widespread human rights abuses being committed in Kenya and South Africa, where the police have been using water cannons and rubber bullets to enforce the lockdown.

Growing tensions between hungry communities and the security forces are only likely to undermine efforts to contain the spread of the virus and increase the prospect of more protests and riots.

In the longer term, the coronavirus crisis is placing some of the world’s most fragile economies under the most intense strain. This year, the poorest countries on Earth—which make up around 25 percent of the world’s population—are due to make more than $40 billion in payments to private and public creditors. In some cases, such as Lebanon and Zambia, governments cannot afford to provide basic public services for their citizens because so much of the budget goes to servicing debt.The end of the coronavirus crisis could be followed by a series of economic collapses across the developing world.

Recognizing that this situation is a direct threat to international efforts to eradicate COVID-19, the International Monetary Fund has floated proposals to make more credit available and to defer debt payments for affected countries. But this will only delay the coming debt crunch, not prevent it. Greater access to credit will see governments rack up even more debt, especially as key income streams such as tourism and the service sector have dried up.

Unless the deferral of debt goes hand in hand with debt cancellation and long-term rescheduling, the end of the coronavirus crisis could be followed by a series of economic collapses across the developing world. In turn, this will undermine the ability of governments to provide affordable fuel and food, further increasing the risk of public unrest.

While leadership vacuums, popular resistance, and debt crises do not make political instability inevitable, all of them bring it closer—especially if there is a leadership struggle in the midst of economic collapse and high food prices.

It is only natural that countries around the world have focused on fighting the coronavirus. But as soon as its impact on public health is brought under control, it is essential that the international community urgently addresses the broader political and economic costs of COVID-19. This will take great generosity at a time of immense domestic hardship for the world’s wealthy nations, and it will mean resisting the urge to become isolationist, which is a strong impulse at times of national crisis.

Civil wars, political instability, and poverty kill millions of people every year. These deaths rarely elicit the kind of comprehensive media coverage that COVID-19 has received, but they are no less important. It is possible to prevent the worst political consequences of the coronavirus but only if governments and institutions act now. Wealthy nations must increase their aid budgets rather than cut them, and international organizations must anticipate and work to avoid political crises more proactively than ever before. That is the only way to collectively survive the present in a way that does not undermine the future.

Nic Cheeseman is a professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham and the author of How to Rig an Election. Twitter: @Fromagehomme

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