FP Guide

Goodbye, Government. Hello, Mafia.

From insurgent groups to charities, a range of nongovernmental organizations are stepping in to respond to the coronavirus crisis.

By Audrey Wilson, an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
Jon Benedict for Foreign Policy

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed deficiencies among governments around in the world. In the United States and Britain, inadequate testing and mixed messaging from leaders have led to declining public confidence in decisions made by lawmakers. In the developing world, many governments lack the capacity to track and isolate coronavirus cases—much less to provide significant economic stimulus as businesses suffer from the effects of lockdowns and restrictions. And multilateral institutions have struggled to take swift and decisive action, particularly as they become battlegrounds for rivalry between countries such as the United States and China.

Other actors, from charitable organizations to criminal gangs, are filling the gap. We’ve rounded up some of our best articles on the groups that have seized the opportunity and stepped in where central governments have faltered—sometimes in their own self-interest.

Since 30 percent of Pakistan’s population lives in poverty, Prime Minister Imran Khan worried early on that the nationwide lockdown—which ended on May 9—would have especially devastating consequences. “When the lockdown came, implementation was delayed or piecemeal, exposing the government’s lack of swift decision-making,” Neha Maqsood wrote on May 11. Likewise, while the government launched its own cash assistance program and relief fund, ordinary citizens stepped in to address remaining needs through acts of charity. Local nonprofit organizations and even Pakistanis living abroad have used WhatsApp and social media platforms to appeal for donations of cash, food, soap, and personal protective equipment for people and hospitals in need.

But such community efforts provide only temporary relief, particularly as the economic effects of the lockdown extend past its end date. “Pakistan does not have sufficient resources and funding to tackle the devastation caused by the lockdown,” Maqsood writes. “For now, the country is surviving purely on its citizens’ willingness to give.”

In neighboring Afghanistan, the government faced criticism during the pandemic for inadequate screening of those crossing its borders—including with Iran, which had an early and significant coronavirus outbreak. But the Taliban claim that they enforced isolation measures for people returning from Iran and even established their own quarantine centers. This messaging is part of a larger propaganda strategy, Ashley Jackson wrote on May 6. The insurgent group released videos and announcements to suggest that it is containing the coronavirus in the areas that it controls, from conducting temperature checks to establishing health information teams.

Jackson argues that civilians living under Taliban control are still likely to suffer disproportionately as long as increasing violence disrupts health care access and supply chains. “Aid donors and agencies would do well to openly acknowledge that the insurgency has an essential role to play and call on it to take concrete, specific actions to halt the virus’s spread and facilitate health work,” she writes. “In the absence of such an effort, the Taliban will likely continue to exploit the pandemic for their own ends.”

Countries such as Mexico, Brazil, and El Salvador have also witnessed an increase in deadly violence at the hands of drug cartels and criminal gangs, which are using the opportunity of the pandemic to build soft power by providing essential goods and services to vulnerable groups, Robert Muggah wrote on May 8. In many slums, crime groups rather than the police are enforcing lockdown orders and curfews. “Their appeal may be growing at a time when government leadership is lacking,” he writes. “In addition to fueling rising violence, the pandemic could enhance the social, economic, and political clout of some criminal organizations in the same way that the Italian mafia and Japanese yakuza emerged stronger after the great dislocations of World War II.”

Italy’s sputtering economy has created a new vacuum for the mafia. While the country’s southern regions largely avoided the worst of the pandemic’s health effects, the ensuing lockdown led to the loss of daily work for tens of thousands of informal laborers, Stefania D’Ignoti reported on May 4. Municipalities are taking longer than expected to distribute relief funds from the central government, leaving room for organized crime to step in. “In Naples, the mafia has stepped in as a provider of food parcels and loans. In Palermo, the brother of a mafia boss was reportedly seen distributing food packages in the city’s poorest neighborhood,” she writes.

Some cities such as Palermo are offering their own food and cash assistance programs in an attempt to stop mafia networks from exploiting those who are desperate and unemployed to ask for some form of repayment later. “The fact that Palermo has fought against the mafia for decades, I see it as an advantage because we already know how to fight back. We just need to be as quick as possible, and we’ll get through this, too,” the mayor of Palermo told D’Ignoti.

In fact, the failure of the global multilateral system to confront the coronavirus crisis head on has created an opportunity for city and state governments around the world to take more decisive action, Nina Hachigian and Anthony F. Pipa argued on May 5. “[C]ities are banding together to fill the gap in global cooperation,” they write, organizing digital forums and conference calls for mayors to discuss health responses, as well as how to reopen and support small businesses. Local leaders are developing their own strategies with the global community in mind, just as the multilateral system faces extreme pressure.

But cities remain secondary players in global policymaking—something that may need to change in the post-pandemic world. “As governments begin to address the economic slump that the virus response has wrought, it will be these very cities that will fight hardest to ensure that a green and equitable recovery becomes the norm,” Hachigian and Pipa write.

Audrey Wilson is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @audreybwilson