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The Hill - Where coronavirus violence is more likely

The Hill - Where coronavirus violence is more likely

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Armed groups in Libya attacked medical warehouses belonging to a hospital treating COVID-19 patients. Gender-based violence, cable theft and vandalism are on the rise in South Africa amid food shortages. In Burkina Faso, “there’s no safe haven” from militants. People in Afghanistan, Venezuela and Brazil face extreme instability and could be the next to appear on our nightly news in unsettling images of violence. 

Globally, acts of violence and coercion are occurring due to the impact of the novel coronavirus. In most places, however, stress and anxiety over the pandemic have not led to violence. For a virus that spreads globally and seems to show no mercy based upon wealth, lifestyle or the presence of insects and rodents, why are some people suffering the impact of violence and others not? And what lessons can we learn from these observations?   

What I’ve discovered over two decades studying the origins of violence is that violence emanates from a person’s struggle for survival. Expected survival for self and kin is threatened during times of important scarcity, a topic that is uniquely front of mind for us today as we struggle under the oppression of COVID-19 uncertainty.  

Governance provides security during times of scarcity. Humans engage in violence when facing a scarcity of resources. Scarcity, or fear of scarcity, triggers the human instinct for self-preservation. Without strong governance, from either the recognized government or other governing organizations, licit or illicit, violence will likely occur.

In many cases, scarcities right now will either keep tyrants in power, empower political entrepreneurs to consolidate power in weak states (the rise of more tyrants) or empower criminal networks to fill the gaps. If these do not occur, then people will organize and find their voices and power. Leaders will emerge and create new stronger institutions of civil society. In the absence of governance, we get violence. 

The risk for violent outbreaks is significantly higher when a combination of scarce resources and weak governance is present. That’s one of the reasons why leaders are imposing stricter and harsher orders. North Korea, unsurprisingly, has not experienced outbreaks of violence. President Duterte of the Philippines gave a "shoot to kill” order to police and military officials for anyone "who creates trouble" during the lockdown; so we don’t see much trouble. Russia has instituted jail time for violating quarantine. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán essentially declared himself a temporary dictator. While the threat of violence is probably stifled under these iron fists, democracy is jeopardized. 

In the absence of strong governmental authority, there is a power vacuum, and other groups – like gang leaders, drug lords or militias – assume that authority. For example, drug kingpins, who don’t want their industry disrupted, will quell violence. Others will incite it. In Libya, as Carnegie reports, “multiple armed groups are likely to weaponize the public health crisis to further their own political and social influence” and could act as de facto police and “enforce public hygiene as a pretext for increased power.” 

Similarly, the BBC predicted that “coronavirus could be catastrophic for Venezuela,” with its political chaos, hyperinflation and hospital shortages. Brazil’s president defied his own social distancing recommendations when he joined a protest in April, significantly weakening his leadership. In Latin America, drug cartels are turning these weaknesses into an opportunity, by distributing food and supplies to the people in order to “increase their political capital,” according to political scholar Nicola Morfini.  

The U.S. is not exempt; we saw similar problems in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, when an ineffective and corrupt police force led to lawlessness, looting and the formation of quasi-militia groups. But we have fewer shortages and have a combination of a strong local, state and federal government structure that makes pandemic-related violence unlikely here. Any violence we do experience will be due to a “scarcity of livelihood” — the government-imposed shutdown that has thrown millions into economic distress. 

On the other hand, governments can use a pandemic to strengthen their legitimacy if they respond capably. We’re seeing less violence in the Palestinian territories, for example, where the Palestinian Authority’s president and Israel’s president cooperated to create a joint operations center for information sharing, coordination and delivery of scarce test kits. This “competent initial reaction” to COVID-19 seems to have brought “some respite in the form of increased public support” and decreased violence. 

Studying violence in the time of COVID-19 gives us great insights. Political entrepreneurs will exploit real and perceived shortages to gain power, wealth and revenge where they perceive an opportunity. People living under strong-arm regimes will avoid violence, but they will live under coercion and corruption. People who live in places with weak institutions of governance will see the violence of this power grab. Our opportunity is to support civil society, encourage collaboration and empower the voices of the people. If we cannot avoid the violence, we can work to ensure the price was worth paying.

Gary M. Shiffman, PhD, is an economist working to solve problems related to human violence. A Gulf War veteran and former Senate National Security Advisor, Chief of Staff at US Customs and Border Protection, DARPA Principal Investigator, and Georgetown University professor, he founded two technology companies, Giant Oak, Inc, and Consilient, Inc. He is the author of The Economics of Violence (2020), and his essays have appeared in media outlets such as The Hill, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, TechCrunch, and others.

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