Upbeat post-pandemic forecasts mask the real dangers of political and social instability
- Social scarring from mass tragedies doesn’t usually show up for years, and Covid-19 will be no different
- The pandemic has ripped open economic divides that will disproportionately affect countries where tensions are already high
With vaccinations raising hopes for an end to the pandemic, predictions about the post-Covid-19 world are multiplying fast. From envisioning a reordered economy to forecasting how people will live, work and play, experts are doing their best to extrapolate from developments the coronavirus has put into motion.
Philip Barrett, Sophia Chen and Nan Li point out that the pandemic’s political impact has yet to materialise. As they noted in a blog post in February, “history is replete with examples of disease outbreaks casting long shadows of social repercussions”.
Any intelligence analyst who has struggled with forecasting political events would advise you to follow the IMF economists’ research. Their findings reflect data collected on 569 episodes of social unrest across 130 countries from the 1980s to 2020 and around 11,000 epidemics and natural disasters since 1990.
Nevertheless, Barrett, Chen and Li show that whatever initial dampening effects a disease outbreak has, it brings a “heightened risk of a major government crisis – an event that threatens to bring down the government and that typically occurs in the two years following a severe epidemic”.
Another analysis warning of future political and social instability comes from global consulting group Verisk Maplecroft. Its Civil Unrest Index tracks the causes and outcomes of unrest in 198 countries, rating the risks to businesses at state and provincial levels. In December, the index showed the likelihood of growing protests in 75 countries through to 2022.
Historical parallels aren’t the only reason to worry about the pandemic’s implications for social and political stability. The fallout from recent policy and governance failures also warrants a closer look.
The vaccination effort is an example. Despite notable progress in developed countries, the World Health Organization reports that almost 130 countries had not administered a single dose as of mid-February. Even in India, the world’s largest vaccine producer, only 3.3 per cent of the population had received shots by March 24, compared to 25.6 per cent in the US.
Put bluntly, the pandemic has ripped open divides that will disproportionately affect countries where ethnic, class and caste tensions are already high.
Reflecting on the effort five years later, a senior intelligence analyst cautioned that forecasting the risk of instability “will remain an art, not a science”. Devising indicators can help anticipate destabilising developments, but “no computer program will do our job for us”.
CIA analysts today would doubtless agree that forecasts are one thing and warnings another. As the IMF economists explain, “understanding the implications of epidemics on social unrest is crucial for preparing for potential social repercussions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic”. Wherever their future research takes them, they have delivered a valuable warning.
Kent Harrington, a former senior CIA analyst, served as national intelligence officer for East Asia, chief of station in Asia, and the CIA’s director of public affairs. Copyright: Project Syndicate