How the Coronavirus Crisis Is Silencing Dissent and Sparking Repression
A look at how protests, political violence, and conflict have played out during the pandemic.
A federal officer pepper sprays a protester in front of the Mark O. Hatfield U.S. Courthouse in Portland, Oregon, on July 20.Nathan Howard/Getty Images
As the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted political and economic systems around the world, it has also changed the nature of disorder—group dynamics including political violence and protests. Since the start of the outbreak, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project has monitored the impact of COVID-19 on global disorder, looking at the ways in which demonstrations, state repression, and mob violence have shifted amid the pandemic. As countries begin to reopen, some shifts may hold. In places where democratic backsliding occurred, for example, leaders will likely capitalize on newly won emergency powers to further stifle opposition. Others may mutate and evolve—although demonstrations precipitously declined after the introduction of movement restrictions, they’re now bouncing back to pre-pandemic levels and, in many areas, are returning with even more force.
As the virus spread and governments imposed movement restrictions, many of the large-scale social movements of 2019 came to a halt, including the October Revolution in Iraq; the Hirak Movement in Algeria; opposition to the Citizenship Amendment Act in India; and the student movement in Chile, as can be seen in the graph below. In a number of cases, local populations turned to new forms of protest to make their voices heard while respecting social distancing guidelines. These included pot-banging protests in Brazil, balcony protests in Spain, and car protests in South Korea.
Although COVID-19 tamped down many existing social movements, government pandemic responses sparked new ones. In Mexico, there has been a rise in protests involving health care workers demanding better access to personal protective equipment. In Iran, anti-government demonstrations continued in response to widespread corruption, poor service delivery, and economic hardship—all exacerbated by the pandemic.
Many of the protest movements that emerged prior to the pandemic were motivated by mistrust of governments seen as corrupt, poor economic managers, and providing subpar governance. In places where state responses to the health crisis have failed or fallen short, governments have only exacerbated these existing grievances, increasing the likelihood that these movements will resurface as soon as restrictions are lifted.
The successful and large-scale rise of the global Black Lives Matter protests is a case in point. The protests have gained traction globally in part because of how the coronavirus crisis has highlighted systemic racial disparities (A common rally sign reads: “Racism is a pandemic”), leaving clear winners and losers in its path. Other movements are restarting amid similar tensions over government shortcomings during the health crisis. In Tunisia, there are more demonstrations now than prior to the pandemic, with people taking to the streets over the worst economic crisis in decades. In Lebanon, too, previous discontent with the government’s response to economic collapse has resurged. Unlike the predominantly peaceful protests seen prior to the pandemic, many of these demonstrations have been violent.
While exceptional state of emergency legislation may be considered appropriate to protect citizens during crisis situations—and may even be met with initial public support—there is a risk that such laws will be used to suppress opposition and popular mobilization, especially when there is no end to the measures in sight. States of emergency can provide cover to governments—and especially authoritarian regimes—to engage in higher levels of human rights violations, leading to a rise in violence targeting civilians.
Such power grabs have been far from rare during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban was bestowed the power to rule by decree with no stated end date; this new power was followed with arbitrary arrests of opponents and restrictions on the press. In Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi moved to shore up his position by cracking down on the media and ratifying new amendments granting him sweeping authorities—the majority of which have no clear ties to public health issues. In Venezuela, the quarantine offered an opportunity for the Nicolás Maduro regime to target the opposition and arrest allies of opposition leader Juan Guaidó (who is viewed by scores of countries as Venezuela’s rightful ruler). In Guinea, the coronavirus outbreak allowed the regime to silence protests and arrest opposition leaders, enact constitutional changes, and elect and install a new parliament. Across West Africa more broadly, governments are subtly exploiting the crisis to repress opposition and manipulate elections.
In many cases, rising state repression took the form of direct violence against civilians as governments became more likely to suppress their citizens and crack down on opposition and minority groups, often under the guise of lockdown measures. A spike in civilian targeting was reported in multiple countries across Africa, including Uganda (as can be seen in the graph below), Nigeria, and South Africa. In the Philippines, the threat of lethal enforcement of lockdown measures kept many at home, initially resulting in a drop in crimes against civilians related to the state’s notorious war on drugs. However, in recent weeks, reports of violence against civilians have neared pre-pandemic levels in the country, and they show few signs of slowing as the government moves forward with a new Anti-Terrorism Act that expands the state’s capacity for warrantless arrests and detention. In Hong Kong, new legislation around a national security law—passed after demonstrations against plans to allow extradition to mainland China began to resume—raises the risk that Hong Kong residents will face arbitrary detention and unfair trial.
Despite widespread hope that the pandemic would bring the world’s warring parties to the negotiating table, it was unlikely that COVID-19, as a health crisis, would directly impact conflict patterns. Nearly four months after the U.N. secretary-general’s call for a cease-fire to all conflicts, the data shows as much: Most warring parties have either refused to declare a cease-fire (as in Myanmar, where the military rejected calls for a cease-fire) or failed at cease-fire attempts (as in the Philippines, where both the Philippine government and the New People’s Army each announced a unilateral cease-fire, yet violence continued, as can be seen in the graph below).
Although government resources are undoubtedly spread thin by the pandemic, conflicts involving state forces continue to rage. Despite mounting cases of COVID-19 in India, for example, state forces remain engaged on multiple fronts, from Kashmir to the Red Corridor, and more recently along the Line of Actual Control with China. Turkish forces, meanwhile, have intensified their operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), launching new operations against the group in June. In Myanmar, the military ramped up its campaign of airstrikes and shelling against rebel groups in Rakhine and Shan states. In Libya, fighting between the Khalifa Haftar-led Libyan National Army and the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord escalated. In Yemen, fighting between Houthi and anti-Houthi forces continued, despite the declaration of a cease-fire.
Some nonstate actors, meanwhile, took the opportunity to scale up their activity against state forces—expanding their active territories and consolidating their positions. The Islamic State encouraged its fighters early on to carry out attacks against the group’s opponents, in order to capitalize on the fact that they would be struggling to manage the ongoing crisis. In Mozambique, Islamist militants (many with ties to the Islamic State) stepped up attacks against civilians and armed forces in the northeastern Cabo Delgado province, with insurgency activity there tripling. In Somalia, al-Shabab continued to launch daily attacks, hindering humanitarian aid. In Mali, the jihadi group JNIM continued its attacks on state forces after announcing that COVID-19 was a “God-sent soldier” that was weakening the Malian Armed Forces. In Afghanistan, the Taliban continued their battles with Afghan forces to further exhaust Kabul’s limited resources—knowing this could result in increased concessions during negotiations. In Mexico, with state forces preoccupied with the public health emergency, cartels seized the moment to intensify their turf wars and expand to new territories, resulting in a spike in attacks on state forces (as can be seen in the map below).
Cartel Violence in Mexico Since WHO Pandemic Announcement
Alongside wearing down state forces on the battlefield, nonstate actors have also tried to vie for greater legitimacy with local populations, especially in contexts where the government has failed to provide necessities. For example, the Taliban in Afghanistan vowed to cease fighting in areas they control if those areas were hit with the virus “so that health workers [could] deliver assistance to that area.” The Taliban also held workshops on preventing the spread of the virus and distributed personal protective equipment. Mexican cartels likewise imposed curfews and distributed food to local populations—a tactic they have long employed to establish their support among marginalized communities. The gangs in the Northern Triangle—also known as maras—have enforced curfews and suspended extortion collections as a so-called relief effort.
Simultaneously, competition among nonstate actors has risen in certain areas. In Africa, intergroup clashes rose by an average rate of 25 percent. In Mexico, the fragmentation of cartels has led to an increase in criminal violence in recent years, stemming from heightened competition among splinter groups over existing drug trade infrastructure. The pandemic has intensified these trends by disrupting markets and trafficking routes, which has, in turned, fueled clashes over the control of territory. Similar trends can be seen in Honduras, where both gang violence and the associated death toll have spiked due to intergang fighting between the larger mara groups like MS-13 and Barrio 18 and smaller local gangs.
Local security providers have long protected their communities wherever the state is not trusted to guarantee security. These groups can be formally organized, as is the case with local communal militias, or can come together spontaneously, as in the case of vigilante mobs taking justice into their own hands. Local security providers have reacted to perceived threats to their communities during previous health crises, such as in response to cholera in Brazilian favelas, to HIV/AIDS in Haiti, or to SARS in New York’s Chinatown neighborhood.
Mob violence targeting those thought to be spreading the virus increased throughout the COVID-19 pandemic (as can be seen in the map below). In China, in the early days of the pandemic, there were reports of vigilantes acting as “epidemic prevention personnel,” assaulting those not wearing masks. In India, mobs targeted Muslims, whom they blamed for the spread of the coronavirus—a rumor stoked by a leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, who called for a boycott of Muslim vendors. In Central America, including in Costa Rica and Panama, residents blocked roads or entries to their communities to “keep the virus out.” Around the world, and in India especially, health care workers have been targeted due to the fear that they spread the virus given their work in close proximity to those infected. Across the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, attacks on 5G telecommunications towers have taken place following disinformation campaigns that the towers are linked to the spread of the virus. Unrest in prisons, too, has risen around the world alongside fears of close quarters and poor detention conditions fueling the spread of COVID-19.
Global Mob Violence Since WHO Pandemic Announcement
As infection rates begin to decline in many parts of the world and restrictions are lifted, violence involving nonstate actors will likely continue. Mob violence, too, will remain possible, targeting those who are marginalized or blamed for the crisis.
State leaders, especially those facing upcoming reelection, will be assessed based on their response to the pandemic. Those perceived to be tackling the crisis effectively, such as New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, are likely to see a surge in public support. Those perceived to have been ineffective—such as U.S. President Donald Trump—may suffer the consequences. In countries where leaders expanded and entrenched their powers, state repression is likely to continue, with the opposition increasingly stifled. And in other nations, particularly where the health of the current regime was impacted, there may be instability among the senior ranks, such as in Iran, where a number of senior leaders were infected, or in Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza, who died in June just weeks after elections that were marred by violence, is thought to be the first head of state to die from COVID-19 complications.
A rise in demonstrations around the world has already begun, and a resurgence in pre-pandemic social movements is expected, especially as the health crisis has only served to further exacerbate many of the original grievances that spurred these movements. Extreme events like the coronavirus pandemic have significant and direct impacts on disorder. Governments can adopt immediate legislation to limit the activity of citizens, and state and nonstate actors alike can exploit the unrest surrounding a pandemic, natural disaster, or the like to advance their political priorities. To address the impact of these shocks on foreign policy, access to data during such contentious periods is paramount. Policymakers and other stakeholders not only need real-time data on the rate and spread of medical cases during a pandemic in order to craft an appropriate public health response, but they also need real-time data collection infrastructure to track how a pandemic affects political violence and protest trends in parallel. Only then can they develop appropriate security policies that complement their public health policies by anticipating how the latter may disrupt the security environment—ensuring that security and public health responses work in tandem, rather than in opposition.
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