The Global Impacts of COVID-19

Woman wearing a mask in China. Photo courtesy of Gauthier Delecroix.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected prospects for peace or conflict; political participation; and civil liberties around the world? Have government responses been adequate—or not? Global experts offer their insights.

Latin America: COVID-19 exacerbates structural inequalities

By Rafael Piñeiro Rodríguez and Fernando Rosenblatt

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates existing structural inequalities around the world, including those between regions, both within and between countries. In Latin America, a region already marred by pervasive inequality, the COVID-19 outbreak will show its worst face and leave damaging legacies. Notwithstanding governments’ varying success in managing the health crisis, the effects of societal lockdown and social distancing policies to control the spread of the virus will severely affect vast numbers of people who live in poverty. People have seen their fragile living conditions, which in many cases had improved during the last decade, deteriorate overnight. Even in countries that experienced strong economic growth in recent years, the pandemic brought back—soup kitchens—and governments, at all levels, began distributing food. This illustrates the fragility of socio-economic development in Latin America and the devastating impact of exogenous shocks. In the same vein, the structural inequalities and social fragility combine with weak state capacity. This combination of factors created a perfect storm that in the coming years will worsen the region’s structural challenges.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused a political impasse in a region undergoing a wave of political polarization and intense popular mobilization. Politics has migrated from institutional channels to the streets in countries as varied as Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Politics increasingly resembles the praetorianism of the masses observed in the region in the 1960s. These political dynamics halted only temporarily. The pandemic will end but its social and economic aftermaths will engender even greater social discord, raising the chances of increased polarization and political conflict. In Latin America, the political discontent is associated not merely with a public perception of governments’ lack of efficacy in addressing social and economic challenges, but with a crisis of the political system’s very legitimacy. The negative social and economic consequences of the pandemic will hit hardest those sectors who perceive themselves as politically excluded, and who are already politically activated. These lower- and middle-class sectors will perceive that they have disproportionately borne the burden of the pandemic, reinforcing the cycle of disconnect between the people and political institutions.

Rafael Piñeiro is Associate Professor in the Departamento de Ciencias Sociales at the Universidad Católica del Uruguay. Fernando Rosenblatt is Associate Professor and Chair of the Political Science department at the Universidad Diego Portales, Chile.

Asia: Regional peace threatened by China amidst Covid-19

By Hai Hong Nguyen

Amidst the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, China has asserted its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea. On April 18, Chinese media reported that the government had declared the creation of administrative districts in the so-called Xisha, or Paracels, which China violently appropriated from Vietnam in 1974, and Nansha, or Spratly, where China has disputes over sovereignty with five claimants including Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Carl Thayer, an Emeritus Professor from Australia’s University of New South Wales, was quoted by Vietnamese media saying that China’s unilateral action complicated the situation and affected peace and stability in the East Sea—Vietnam’s name for the South China Sea.

The South China Sea is host to natural resources, including oil and gas, and is known as being one of the busiest maritime transport routes between East and West. China has shown its ambition to control the area by drawing a nine-dash line, which was declared null by an international Arbitral Tribunal in 2016. In early April, China rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat in the waters around the Paracel Islands, also claimed by Vietnam.

The COVID-19 pandemic has infected more than 12 million people around the world, of which, more than 500,000 have been killed—including at least 4,000 deaths in China. Some are arguing that China is taking advantage of COVID-19 to delay discussions around the Code of Conduct, an upgrade of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), which, though not yet signed, is intended to bring peace and stability to South East Asia. Last month, ASEAN leaders sent a unanimous statement to China at the conclusion of the bloc’s first-ever virtually-held summit, rejecting the Chinese claims in the South China Sea by reaffirming the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS, 1982) as “the basis for determining maritime entitlements, sovereign rights, jurisdiction and legitimate interests over maritime zones”.

Earlier this month, China conducted a military drill in the area of the Paracel Islands claimed by Vietnam. The provocation faced criticism from countries in the region including the United States. Thayer says recent moves by China in the South China Sea demonstrate the country’s “as-usual” business in the disputed waters. One thing is clear: COVID-19 has had a substantial impact in the region—in creating a united voice in the region to protest China, and an opportunity for China to leverage global insecurity.

Hai Hong Nguyen is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Center for Policy Futures, the University of Queensland.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Will COVID-19 weaken the rule of law?

By Adrienne LeBas

There was cause for initial optimism regarding COVID-19 in sub-Saharan Africa. In the first 100 days of the pandemic, the bulk of confirmed cases in the region were associated with travel, and some commentators suggested that African states’ experience with similar public health challenges—yellow fever, ebola, etc.—might assist with COVID containment. Many African governments also moved quickly, closing airports and imposing lockdowns or curfews prior to significant numbers of cases. For those following the New York Times COVID tracker, Africa still doesn’t look too bad. In relation to other regions, confirmed case numbers are low, amounting to less than 3 percent of the global total, and continuing hotspots like South Africa and Egypt seem to have fallen off the front pages.

But the World Health Organization has warned that transmission is now accelerating in the region, as confirmed cases in the region pass 200,000 and move beyond capital cities. The head of the African CDC warned over a month ago that lack of testing likely masks higher COVID rates. At the end of April, South Africa had only tested 280 per 10,000 residents, while testing levels elsewhere were a fraction of this rate. Testing rates in the US at this time was 1,560 per 10,000 inhabitants, despite widespread complaints about testing availability.

The economic and food security toll of COVID restrictions has been significant, especially in Africa’s fast-growing cities. Africa’s urban residents are overwhelmingly dependent on daily earnings to survive, and demand is likely to overwhelm government food distribution and cash transfer programs that have been rolled out.

The COVID pandemic will also have significant implications for political rights, civil liberties, and security across the continent. Though it is impossible to generalize across 54 countries, several trends seem likely as the pandemic worsens:

Democratic erosion in sub-Saharan Africa—already evident in Freedom House trends over the past years—will be further enabled by COVID. Zimbabwe and Guinea seem to have moved towards autocratization during COVID-19, and international attention has been diverted from ongoing government repression in Cameroon. An election that many hoped would cement political opening in Ethiopia is now on hold. Even in countries where democracy has been on an upward trend, COVID-19 has justified restrictions of civil liberties, as evidenced by new threats to press freedom in Liberia and the potentially “over broad” criminalization of coronavirus-related fake news in South Africa. Even in full democracies like Ghana, new laws passed to enable COVID-19 restrictions have been termed “draconian”.

Policing of the pandemic may worsen the quality of African police forces, which are already widely distrusted. Security forces have used excessive force to police COVID-19 regulations in Uganda, Kenya, and Rwanda. In Nigeria, security forces were responsible for more deaths than COVID-19 during the first two weeks of lockdown in April.

COVID-19 may weaken the rule of law in other ways across sub-Saharan Africa. According to Kieran Mitton, pandemic restrictions have allowed gangs in Cape Town, South Africa, to expand their business operations and recruit more members. In Lagos, Nigeria, false rumors of armed criminal gangs migrating into the city sparked panic soon after government-mandated lockdowns, and crime seems to be on the rise. Finally, though COVID-19 restrictions may initially disrupt human smuggling networks across the Mediterranean, the pandemic is likely to increase the number of economic refugees and the power of smugglers in the medium- to long-run.

Adrienne LeBas is Associate Professor of Government in the School of Public Affairs at American University. 

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