The implications of COVID-19 for social cohesion and public order

REUTERS/Jean Bizimana

People may have their objections on the way institutions such as Governments are run, but they expect them to deliver. Part of this expected delivery by the institutions is the capacity to anticipate and manage crises. In an uncertain environment like the ongoing global COVID-19 public health crisis, trust in institutions is essential for compliance to measures to prevent the spread and contain the virus and even more critical to maintain peace, security and stability.

Centrality of trust

Maintaining reasonable levels of trust between citizens and their institutions is a daily challenge for leaders. In his address at the World Government Summit in Dubai on 13 February 2017, UN Secretary-General Guterres said:” If one looks at today’s governance problems at the country level, between countries or at multilateral governance in the world, we face a terrible lack of trust”.

Clearly, the COVID-19 was underestimated when it initially developed in the Wuhan province of China. The epidemic generated unprecedented individual and collective tension and anxiety when it spread all over the world. This has increased scepticism of citizens in the capacity of their Governments and institutions to anticipate crises. The recent decisions of most governments to confine populations in their homes in order to reduce the spread of the virus and alleviate the burden on hospitals had some impact. However, populations are showing signs of fatigue and some are violating lockdown measures. The implementation of the lockdown measures in populous and poor areas has proved difficult with families and other vulnerable people finding it difficult to observe social distancing.

@djinnitsaid in #C19ConflictMonitor: Trust in institutions is essential for compliance with #COVID19 measures to contain the virus and even more critical to maintain peace, secure and stability.

Furthermore, a few ongoing controversial issues regarding the lack of medical equipment including masks and COVID-19 tests, the utility of using masks and the validation of the medical treatment affect the trust between  citizens and their institutions. 

Preparedness and Response

The emergence of the COVID-19 crisis has taken everyone by surprise. Yet, some leaders, like former President Obamawarned in 2014, against the disruptive risks of world pandemics and many political and civil society leaders at national and international level have been advocating for greater investment in health and better global preparedness and response mechanisms. Despite these appeals, many developed countries have reduced investments in their public health sectors over the past years. Many did not maintain strategic reserves of protective health equipment.

Although the World Health Organisation (WHO) provided guidance to member states to improve collective efforts to tackle the crisis, COVID-19 responses continue to be made at national level without enough coordination at regional and continental level. Many regional organizations endeavoured to coordinate collective efforts of their respective members only after a few weeks.

On 16 April, President of the EU Commission offered “heartfelt apology” to Italy for not helping at the start of the deadly Coronavirus outbreak.

So far, Africa has been relatively spared from the Coronavirus. However, health systems are generally weak and will not be able to cope with the severe impact of the virus. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) was quick in advising countries to close their borders and to introduce social distancing measures which has undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. The Bureau of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union held a video conference on 3 April under the leadership of President Ramaphosa to review Africa’s response to the crisis.

Shifting global order

The current global situation is paradoxical: the most powerful countries such as the USA and France holding huge military arsenals and equipment found themselves in a vulnerable position having to look for masks, ventilators and other specialised health equipment in China and other countries. The COVID-19 crisis has revealed that less priority has been accorded to human security, including health and environment, compared to state security. Billions of dollars continue to be spent in acquiring sophisticated arms and weapons while public health structures have been lacking much needed funds for research, equipment and medical care.

In addition to geopolitical tensions, measures taken to prevent the spread and contain the virus are also affecting the UN Security Council’s effectiveness in the COVID-19 response. The recent decision of President Trump to halt WHO funding has been criticized worldwide.

Global economic recession

According to recent statement by the IMF, the ongoing pandemic will lead to the world’s most severe recession since the Great Depression. Increased social unrest are expected at the end of the lockdown especially in the various countries where demonstrations against the government were taking place.

Governments have put in place measures to mitigate the economic and social impact on populations and to provide assistance to needy people. But, this support by governments is not sustainable. A gradual removal of restrictions on movements is expected to be implemented at some point in order to re-activate declining economies. But the crisis has brought to the fore the reality of deep inequalities in the society and the marginalization of the modest workers who have been maintaining the provision of basic services during the prevailing crisis. There will clearly be the need for structural reforms of the economies of the world to bring about some level of social justice and prevent serious political and social tensions in the near future.

Conflict and violence

The global outbreak has the potential to trigger social and political tensions particularly in fragile states and is likely to put peace operations as well as humanitarian response mechanisms to a test.

A number of violent incidents have been reported during humanitarian distributions, and riots and mutinies in prisons have been witnessed in parts of the world.

In Africa, those involved in the informal economic sector and other vulnerable segments of society cannot cope with the current situation. Incidents of domestic violence have also increased. This situation is likely to worsen if the confinement policy is maintained for a long period.

The situation could be further exacerbated by the political and democratic implications of the COVID-19 crisis in some countries. In many cases, countries have decided to postpone elections scheduled to be held during the crisis period and beyond. Others choose to hold the elections despite the risks of spreading the virus. Many elections are scheduled in the world at large and in Africa in particular in the coming months. The way concerned governments are going to handle incoming elections will be highly sensitive with risks of political and social tensions.

Looking ahead

Whether COVID-19 will indeed lead to a systemic change with shorter and more secure supply chains remains to be seen. What is certain however is that more investments are urgently needed in public health systems at the national, regional and multilateral levels.

The successful response by the Africa Center for Disease Control (CDC) thus far is proof that a pooling of expertise at the regional level is cost effective and helps a coordinated approach. The CDC should be upgraded to a full-fledged Agency with the required resources to promote medical research and support countries in preventing and managing pandemics.

Djinnit Said 

Ambassador Said Djinnit joined ACCORD in June 2019 as a Special Advisor based in Brussels, Belgium. He has served as the Special Envoy of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General for the Great Lakes Region of Africa from September 2014 to March 2019, and as the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for West Africa from April 2008 to September 2014. Before joining the UN Ambassador Djinnit served as the first Commissioner for Peace and Security at the African Union (AU) from 2003 to 2008.

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