Argument

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Get Ready for a Spike in Global Unrest

COVID-19 threatens to accelerate longer-term rebellion, violence, and political upheaval.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service.
Protesters gather in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood to show their support for Cuba's protesters.
Protesters gather in Miami's Little Havana neighborhood to show their support for Cuba's protesters on July 14. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

To call 2021 the summer of discontent would be a severe understatement. From Cuba to South Africa to Colombia to Haiti, often violent protests are sweeping every corner of the globe as angry citizens are taking to the streets.

Each country has different histories and realities on the ground, particularly in Haiti, where years of violence and government corruption culminated two weeks ago in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. But they all faced a perfect storm of preexisting social, economic, and political hardships, which fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic only inflamed further. And they are merely a foreshadowing of the post-coronavirus global tinderbox that’s looming as existing tensions in countries across the world morph into broader civil unrest and uprisings against economic hardships and inequality deepened by the pandemic.

To call 2021 the summer of discontent would be a severe understatement. From Cuba to South Africa to Colombia to Haiti, often violent protests are sweeping every corner of the globe as angry citizens are taking to the streets.

Each country has different histories and realities on the ground, particularly in Haiti, where years of violence and government corruption culminated two weeks ago in the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. But they all faced a perfect storm of preexisting social, economic, and political hardships, which fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic only inflamed further. And they are merely a foreshadowing of the post-coronavirus global tinderbox that’s looming as existing tensions in countries across the world morph into broader civil unrest and uprisings against economic hardships and inequality deepened by the pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic was a once-in-a-century crisis that not only shocked countries’ existing health systems but also demanded a response that impacted—and was itself shaped by—economic, political, and security considerations. The efforts to contain it may have curbed fatalities in the short term but have inadvertently deepened vulnerabilities that laid the groundwork for longer-term violence, conflict, and political upheaval and should serve as a danger sign to world leaders as countries reopen—including in the United States.

History is full of examples of pandemics being incubators of social unrest, from the Black Death to the Spanish flu to the great cholera outbreak in Paris, immortalized in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Underlying it all this time around is a pervasive inequality. COVID-19 has ripped open economic divides and made life harder for already vulnerable groups, including women and girls and minority communities.

History is full of examples of pandemics being incubators of social unrest.

It has also exposed weaknesses in food security and dramatically increased the number of people affected by chronic hunger. The United Nations estimates around one-tenth of the global population—between 720 million people and 811 million—were undernourished last year. The impacts of climate change and environmental degradation have only compounded the despair. 

Take the Sahel, where, due to a toxic cocktail of conflict, COVID-19 lockdowns, and climate change, the scale and severity of food insecurity continues to rise. Countries such as Ethiopia and Sudan are among the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with catastrophic levels of hunger. Droughts and locusts are coming at a critical time for farmers ready to plant crops and are stopping herders in their tracks from driving their livestock to greener pastures. 

The global vaccine shortage is fueling the instability. A majority of Africa is lagging far behind the world in vaccinations, meaning COVID-19 will continue to constrain national economies and, in turn, become a source of potential political instability. The same is true for much of Latin America and Asia, where countries don’t have enough vaccines to protect their populations and simmering sources of protest—such as rising living costs and deepening inequalities—are more likely to boil over. 

The global risk firm Verisk Maplecroft has warned that as many as 37 countries could face large protest movements for up to three years. A new study by Mercy Corps examining the intersection of COVID-19 and conflict found concerning trends that warn of potential for new conflict, deepening existing conflict, and worsening insecurity and instability shaped by the pandemic response. 

The group found a collapse of public confidence in governments and institutions was a key driver of instability. People in fragile states, already suffering from diminished trust in their government, have felt further abandoned as they face disruptions in public services, rising food prices, and massive economic hardships, such as unemployment and reduced wages. Supply chains disrupted during the pandemic have seen food prices skyrocket, while in the global recession humanitarian aid budgets are being slashed, bringing many countries to the brink of famine. For the first time in 22 years, extreme poverty—people living on less than $1.90 a day—was on the rise last year. Oxfam International estimates that “it could take more than a decade for the world’s poorest to recover from the economic impacts of the pandemic.”

The shocks caused by the pandemic have also eroded social cohesion, further fraying relations between communities and deepening polarization. That is especially true in the United States, where social and political pressures both deepened the health crisis and were themselves worsened by it. All of this should serve as a clarion call to countries that they can’t prepare for, or respond to, future health crises in a vacuum—but must anticipate an economic, political, and social crisis. This is true for any severe shock, which brings the potential for a breakdown in public order. 

Trends show the social scarring from such shocks don’t show up for years, and the coronavirus pandemic is unlikely to be an exception. Lockdowns and crisis-induced displays of national unity have masked the full effect of the pandemic, which will become more apparent once the economic reopening gets into full swing. The non-health impacts of COVID-19 will far outlast the disease. 

That’s why aid for conflict prevention and building resilience must be part of the COVID-19 recovery efforts, if not central to them. The United States has a ready-made tool to help: the 2019 Global Fragility Act. The bipartisan legislation establishes an interagency effort around conflict prevention in unstable countries and directs foreign assistance toward preventing violence by investing in and and supporting humanitarian development and peacekeeping programs in tandem to help countries move away from crisis and build resilience and long-term stability. 

All of this proves a health crisis is more than just a health crisis.

Now, the United States just needs a Domestic Fragility Act. After all, it may have been the most prepared country in the world to respond to a pandemic. Yet despite its advanced health care system and abundant wealth and resources, the United States found itself among most severely impacted. That is because COVID-19 exposed America’s fault lines: The country lacked the social and political capital necessary to properly respond; got bogged down in political polarization, brinkmanship, and gridlock at every level; and is drowning in a miasma of misinformation. 

All of this proves a health crisis is more than just a health crisis. The Fund for Peace’s Fragile States Index, which tracks social, economic, and political trends across 179 countries, found COVID-19 was the “first domino in a chain of events that ignited more longstanding and deep-seated grievances,” with impacts that will reverberate for years. The results show that fragility—whether in the social, economic, political, or security dimension—can develop anywhere, even in the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world. In the event of a shock, even rich societies unable to pull together may be as vulnerable as the poorest country in the world. 

The United States, in fact, saw the largest worsening on the fragility scale, given some of the country’s largest-ever protests against police violence (that were often met by a heavy-handed reaction by law enforcement) and efforts to delegitimize the election process, which escalated violently in early 2021. 

This shows it is not enough to have a strong military, a strong economy, and excellent hospitals. We need reconciliation. Eventually, there will be another shock. And if the United States doesn’t come to grips with its fraying social cohesion, it will be at least as vulnerable next time—or even more so.

Elise Labott is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

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