How Political and Social Unrest Affect Global Security in the Age of Covid-19

Sept. 11, 2020
The pandemic is already showing signs of amplifying ongoing turmoil around the world

While the COVID-19 pandemic’s most immediate impacts have been on public health and economic performance, the longer-term legacy of the current crisis is more likely to be political and social upheaval. The pandemic is already showing signs of amplifying ongoing crises around the world, whether it’s racial inequality in the United States, government spending on social programs in South America, unsustainable debt in Europe, or the ongoing geopolitical stand-off between the United States and China. In addition to the wave of challenges governments and companies have faced amidst the immediate COVID-19 crisis, the long-term repercussions on political and social stability will generate more uncertainty for years to come.

A Brief Synopsis of the Security Challenges

We are still in the early stages of responding to the health and economic crisis brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic -- Seven months after an unusual spike in pneumonia-like cases linked to a market in Wuhan, China, the disease known as COVID-19 has killed nearly 500,000 people worldwide and infected nearly 10 million people. Countries are taking on record levels of debt to mitigate the short-term economic impacts of record level drops in spending, investment, trade, and employment as a result of the response to the public health crisis. There are encouraging signs that the third quarter of 2020 won’t be as bad as the second, but the virus will continue to spread, and we are likely years away from a full economic recovery. While researchers are making progress in treating the symptoms that make the disease lethal, leading to declining death rates, the number of daily infections and hospitalizations continues to grow and stretch the limits of health care infrastructures. While treatments will mitigate the severity of infections, reliable preventative drugs (like vaccines) or antiviral cures are still months - if not years - away from being widely available to the population.

Seasonal changes and environmental conditions only partially contribute to the virus’ spread -- Latin America is currently going through the worst of the outbreak, as late fall turns into early winter and environmental conditions accelerate the spread of the virus. However, warmer regions in North America and Europe are still dealing with increasing cases and hospitalizations during their summers. There is substantial concern that countries in the northern hemisphere will face a second wave of COVID-19 outbreaks in the winter of 2020 as the weather gets colder again, disrupting an economic recovery only as it gets started.

In addition to the immediate health and economic challenges, there are still many more long term political and social crises to get through over the coming years as the dust settles -- Responses to COVID-19 are ultimately political calculations trying to balance public health with economic performance. Incumbent governments around the world are being criticized for being either too extreme or not extreme enough in their response to the health and economic crisis. Unsustainable levels of spending set up potentially worse economic and financial crises in the longer term once countries are faced with the prospect of paying back the debt they took on to address the immediate economic shock caused by COVID-19. Meanwhile, contracting GDP will mean less revenue for governments to fund ongoing services and basic operations, creating the potential for social unrest and crises.

Politically, democratic countries are still dealing with the rise in populist leaders that followed the global financial crisis of the late 2000s -- Historic economic losses in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008  and governments’ response to those losses triggered significant social and political unrest - and it wasn’t always immediate. The Occupy Wall Street movement didn’t begin until the fall of 2011, three years after the U.S. stock market crash in 2008. The debt crisis that wracked southern European countries led to social and political turmoil in countries like Greece and Italy throughout the 2010s and popular rejection of the consensus on bailing out major financial institutions led to a swell in populism that is still defining political structures around the world. The COVID-19 pandemic appears to be hurting support for populist leaders in the United States, United Kingdom, and Brazil (Presidents Trump, Bolsonaro, and Prime Minister Johnson have all seen poll numbers decline so far this year). However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that political support will swing back to the establishment. Like the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, it could just as easily create political space for other fringe political movements to gain popularity and influence.

The true legacy of catastrophic events like the ongoing pandemic tends to be how they elevate and exacerbate ongoing crises -- Eventually, the COVID-19 pandemic will come to an end; whether the disease runs its course and the global population develops natural immunity, or vaccines inoculate the population to the point of eradication. However, the endemic political, social, and strategic conflicts around the world will persist and, more often than not, will intensify as a result of the current pandemic. The remaining paragraphs will explore examples of ongoing conflicts and future crises that we can expect around the world in the wake of COVID-19.

Profiling the United States

2020 was already poised to be a year of elevated social unrest in the United States due to the fact that it is an election year and the environment of partisanship has led to numerous protest actions - often resulting in violence. COVID-19 has only amplified partisanship in the United States and is one of the contributing factors behind the broad and sustained reaction to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other related police-involved deaths of black Americans. One of the results of the unrest so far is that policies like defunding police departments went from a fringe, extremist protest slogan to mainstream acceptance in less than a month.

It is unlikely that the current round of protests will sustain the same level of disruptive power through the end of the year, but there is no shortage of grievances to drive other protest movements during an election year. Immigration, climate change, and workers’ rights are all ongoing protest issues that are currently lurking below the surface and very much being impacted by the pandemic. Another issue that will be important to watch is the debate over how to proceed with election campaigns and voting processes amidst a pandemic. We have already seen glimpses of political confrontations during the Republic National Convention in August and unhappiness over malfunctioning voting machines in Iowa, Georgia, and Kentucky primary elections. The debate overextending vote-by-mail programs amidst the pandemic is another issue that could become particularly divisive, contribute to social unrest amidst an election season, and ultimately change the way Americans vote for many more election cycles to come.

Profiling Latin America

Latin America had just experienced an unusually high level of social unrest towards the end of 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic upended daily life there. Democratic solutions to unrest in Chile and Bolivia in the form of a constitutional referendum and special election respectively have been delayed by the pandemic. While both populations have so far remained compliant, extended delays could test the patience of the protesters and return disruptions to Santiago and La Paz. In Brazil, the pandemic has amplified partisan divides between local leaders and the controversial president, Jair Bolsonaro; and Ecuador’s President Lenin Moreno has faced threats that opposition to his response to COVID-19 could rejuvenate a 2019 protest movement that forced his government to temporarily evacuate the capital.

Argentina is simultaneously dealing with a pandemic and a debt crisis, putting into jeopardy the country’s ability to fund social welfare and health programs in the medium- and long-term future. Cuts to these programs could provoke protests that reject the norms of market economy and international finance. As Latin America experiences the worst of the COVID-19 health crisis, protest activity is understandably low. But as we saw in the United States in June, the threat of unrest will return once authorities begin to relax and lift restrictions in the coming months. Underlying social frustrations over economic inequality and declining social support programs in countries contributed to the 2019 protests and COVID-19 only amplifies them.

Profiling Europe

Europe’s response to COVID-19 is to put off the political and economic crises through short term stimulus spending. As my colleague Adriano Bosoni has argued, the tools that the European Union built to address the Global Financial Crisis in the early 2010s have helped to mitigate the current crisis. The creation of a permanent bailout fund and more active intervention of the European Central Bank in debt markets helped the continent respond more quickly and forcefully to the economic challenges associated with COVID-19.

However, that response has required record level deficit spending that will eventually need to be reconciled. Southern European countries like Portugal, Spain, and Italy, which were already facing massive levels of debt have deferred the economic reckoning that will come once it is time to repay that debt. Once the immediate crisis has passed, southern European governments will have to convince their constituents to accept lower levels of government spending. Social support programs like unemployment benefits, pensions, or education have historically been third rails in Europe and efforts to reform them have triggered social unrest and created openings for radical parties like Spain’s left-wing Podemos party, or Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star movements. While those parties are not necessarily benefiting from the current crisis, the unsustainable economics of the COVID-19 response is setting the stage for a political crisis in the coming years that could rejuvenate fringe radical parties or create entirely new ones.

Profiling Africa

As of late June, the African continent had one of the lowest rates of infection per capita. However, countries across the continent are still facing economic damages linked to early and severe restrictions on the movement and gathering of people that arguably have contributed to the slower spread of the disease across the continent. A series of protests in Senegal in early June against curfews imposed there showed signs of growing public anger over restrictions. The government responded by easing a curfew and ban on inter-regional travel, which pacified protesters but could encourage social unrest to pressure for further relaxations.

Another potential disruption to an already politically fragile state is the discrepancy between electoral timelines in Ethiopia. The central government postponed 2020 elections to 2021 citing COVID-19 but the autonomy seeking Tigray region is vowing to go ahead with elections as planned later this year, threatening to stoke ethno-separatist tensions. The situation in Ethiopia is an example of how disagreements over how to handle the pandemic could accelerate political divides that were already in place before the crisis.

Profiling East Asia

While Asian governments have been able to manage the pandemic with minimal social or political unrest, COVID-19’s apparent origin in China has amplified international skepticism towards Beijing and lent political support to anti-China policies. Western intelligence agencies and governments have suggested that the virus that causes COVID-19 may have originated from a lab in Wuhan while some politicians have speculated even further that the virus was man-made, a dubious claim but nonetheless explosive in the current context of U.S.-China relations.

Regardless of whether Beijing is ultimately found culpable for the outbreak and spread of COVID-19, the fact that the virus was first identified in China provides ammunition to critics in Washington, D.C., and allies around the world who were already seeking ways to diversify away from Chinese economic dependence. The United States specifically was already engaged in an escalatory trade war with Beijing and has threatened to expand tariffs and introduce sanctions against Chinese officials over the situation in Hong Kong. COVID-19 provides yet another pillar for anti-Chinese policies that may not play out immediately, but over the next few years, especially if more details emerge linking Chinese officials to the origin or spread of the novel coronavirus.

The immediate impact of increased social and political unrest is direct disruptions to business operations. Protests that shut down city centers prevent workers from getting to their offices and consumers from purchasing goods and services. Opposition groups, ranging from fringe political parties to activists, and militant groups, will use the crises amplified and created by the current pandemic to challenge establishment leaders on the streets, but also at the ballot box. The more strategic threat that social and political unrest poses to business operations is radical changes in social sentiment or political leadership that can adversely affect demand for a company’s products or the regulatory and legal environment the company operates in. A generation from now, the political and social upheaval caused by the pandemic’s disruptions will be far more impactful than the immediate, relatively short-term impacts that we are currently experiencing.

 About the Author: Ben West is Global Security analyst for Stratfor, a RANE company. As a global security analyst, West studies trends in terrorism, crime and espionage around the world. Since first joining Stratfor in 2007, his work has been featured by media outlets such as The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and The Washington Post. West has extensive experience abroad, having studied and worked in Germany, the United Kingdom, China, and Italy. Throughout this time, he worked in the international political and commercial sectors. He earned his master’s from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, focusing his research on terrorist and criminal financial networks, and received his bachelor’s in International Relations from Boston University.

About the Author

Ben West | Senior Analyst with Touchstone.

Ben West is a Senior Analyst with Touchstone. West has 14 years of experience as a global security analyst working to ensure business continuity for major Fortune 500 companies in the tech, energy, and retail sectors. Mr. West’s prior projects have included advising a major tech company on integrating physical and cyber security responsibilities, monitoring organized criminal threats to energy supply chains in Mexico, and anticipating supply chain disruptions associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. He also has expertise in industrial espionage, political unrest, terrorism, and executive travel security. West holds an M.A. in International Relations from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.