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How has the pandemic affected civil conflict around the world?

Covid-19 is just the latest in a centuries-long history of epidemics that have damaged peace and political stability. In part, such harmful effects result from a breakdown of trust between governments and citizens. At the same time, higher public spending can reduce the likelihood of civil conflict.

The economic upheaval caused by Covid-19 may have increased the risk of conflicts around the world. This, perhaps unexpected, consequence of the pandemic is particularly likely to have affected countries most harmed by the virus.

For example, Peru had one of the highest Covid-19 mortality rates in the world in 2020-21 and its internal conflict risk score – measured by PRS Group's International Country Risk Guide (ICRG) – also increased significantly. The ICRG index is based on an annual survey of specialists who evaluate a country's vulnerability to conflict in three areas: civil war and coup risk; political violence and terrorism; and civil unrest. The key driver of the increase in internal conflict in Peru was civil disorder during the pandemic.

But protests were not limited to the Global South. France, which also suffered from high Covid-19 mortality, saw its internal conflict risk score rise between 2020 and 2021. The country experienced protests against government policies that people believed were infringing their civil and personal liberties.

In Bulgaria, there were protests against vaccinations due to the spread of conspiracy theories and lower trust in the government. These trends were compounded by lower levels of education. Bulgaria also faced a high Covid-19 mortality rate and saw a significant change in its internal conflict risk during the pandemic.

This pattern can also be seen in Tunisia, as a result of a fragile economic system, high unemployment and slow vaccination rates. And in Brazil, there were large-scale protests due to corruption scandals in vaccine purchasing by the health ministry and poor management of the pandemic by the Bolsonaro administration.

These examples point to a broader trend examined in a new study of the relationship between Covid-19 fatalities and the risk of internal conflicts. Crucially, government spending implemented in response to the pandemic appears to diminish this trend.

Understanding these effects matters not just for the countries experiencing violence, but globally too. Internal conflict can extend beyond borders and pose a direct threat to regional stability and international peace and security (Yayboke et al, 2021).

How can internal conflicts affect the economy?

Research shows that internal conflicts harm economic growth in several ways. Increased uncertainty can lead to reduced domestic and foreign investment (Alesina and Perotti, 1996; Busse and Hefeker, 2007). Disruptions in production can also have a negative impact on economic output.

Internal conflicts can lead to individuals and companies moving money out of a country, or increased capital flight (Le and Zak, 2006). They are also likely to result in a decline in international tourism (Saha and Yap, 2014).

Detrimental government policies – such as censorship and restrictions on freedom of speech, eroding civil liberties or increased militarisation and use of force – are likely to be put in place as a result of internal conflicts (Fredriksson and Svensson, 2003). Countries facing unrest also see slower growth in productivity and capital (Aisen and Veiga, 2013).

Internal conflicts, such as civil disorder and anti-government demonstrations, might also lead to revolutions and regime changes (for example, the Arab Spring in 2011). Domestic unrest can also increase the risk of external conflict (inter-state war).

Countries facing internal conflict also experience business uncertainty and substantial negative income loss (for the case of the Islamic revolution and the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, see Farzanegan, 2021, 2022, 2023).

How might pandemics affect internal conflicts?

Historical evidence over the past seven centuries shows that epidemics have harmful effects on peace and political stability. One study looking at 57 significant epidemics over the period between the Black Death (1346-53) and the Spanish flu (1919-20) shows that in 53 cases (or 93%), these events were incubators of serious social disorder (Censolo and Morelli, 2020).

This research highlights three main ways in which epidemics influence political instability: by straining the relationship between the government and its citizens with restrictive measures; by contributing to widening inequality; and through the dissemination of inaccurate information that may stoke irrational fears.

This third channel seems particularly relevant to Covid-19. For example, one study shows that timely communication by governments about the risks faced during the pandemic was a key mechanism in reducing the spread of extreme ideas, such as QAnon conspiracy theories (Chan et al, 2021).

A similar study using data from the first five months of the pandemic provides some descriptive evidence that pandemics can amplify violent conflicts, especially in conflict-prone countries. There are two main explanations for this. First, the pandemic intensifies the original reasons surrounding the conflict. Second, governments and non-state organisations can take advantage of the pandemic to advance their political and territorial objectives (Polo, 2020).

Others argue that the pandemic’s harmful economic consequences can worsen poverty and increase recruitment to rebel groups. They can also offer opportunities for opposition movements to attack distracted and weakened incumbents, thereby triggering and intensifying armed conflicts (Mehrl and Thurner, 2021).

How does government spending affect internal conflicts?

Several studies highlight that government expenditure reduces political instability. Using data from 141 countries over the period between 1965 and 2006, research shows that countries with higher levels of government spending as a share of GDP (an indicator of economic capacity) and good institutions are less likely to experience intra-state armed conflict (Fjelde and de Soysa, 2009).

Redistributive public spending indicates a government’s commitment to providing public goods, and it is popular with citizens, thereby promoting peace. Governments can also garner political support through public spending by offering employment or subsidies. This is especially relevant in resource-rich economies with autocratic governments (Bjorvatn and Farzanegan, 2015; Bratton and van de Walle, 1997; Acemoglu et al, 2004).

In such countries, the social contract is based on distribution of income from resources by subsidising energy carriers, or access to subsidised foreign exchange rates. For example, the share of oil, gas, coal and electricity subsidies is 14% of GDP in Iran.

Further, the likelihood of civil conflicts is significantly lower in countries where the government spends more on welfare policies including education, health and social security (Taydas and Peksen, 2012). Funding social services is seen as a gesture by governments to prioritise the needs of their citizens (Dizaji et al, 2016). As a result, there is less opposition and rebellion, and stronger incentives to maintain peace.

What is the relationship between Covid-19 mortality and internal conflict?

Higher Covid-19 death rates are likely to increase internal tensions and violence. (For several examples of countries where the pandemic amplified the risk of internal conflict and violence, see this UNICEF report).

Our study suggests that there is a positive correlation between higher Covid-19 mortality and the development of internal conflict, specifically civil disorder, during the pandemic. This result holds even after controlling for other sources of conflict and the initial level of conflict in countries.

But this positive association between Covid-19 mortality rates and civil disorder changes if and when governments provide economic support. Greater state support – such as fiscal, monetary, balance of payments and exchange rate policy packages – can weaken the link between the outbreak of the pandemic and further unrest.

The analysis highlights the potential risks associated with low levels of government economic support during the pandemic. Specifically, it shows that in countries where the government’s pandemic support package is less than around 25% of GDP, there is a risk of rising civil disorder resulting from an increase in the Covid-19 mortality rate.

Visualising the results of this study can help to highlight the connection between Covid-19 mortality and conflict. Figure 1 shows the positive association between the logarithm of total confirmed Covid-19 deaths per million people in 2020 and 2021 and the development of internal conflict (both in relative and absolute forms).

For example, the case of Peru is visible in the top right corner of the figure, showing a high level of Covid-19 mortality and higher levels of absolute and relative growth in the risk of internal conflict during the pandemic years.

Figure 1: Relative and absolute development of the ICRG internal conflict score during the pandemic and the total Covid-19 death rates by the end of 2021

Source: Farzanegan and Gholipour, 2023; conflict data from ICRG
Note: Prior to calculating the changes, the original internal conflict score was rescaled, with higher values indicating a higher risk of internal conflict. Only countries included in the estimation sample were considered. The estimated coefficient for Covid-19 deaths (with no other control variables) for the case of relative development (%) of internal conflict is 1.06 with robust t-statistics of 2.16 and a p-value of 0.03 (R-sq. = 5%). The estimated coefficient of Covid-19 deaths for the case of absolute change in internal conflict is 0.04 with robust t-statistics of 2.65 and a p-value of 0.009 (R-sq. = 5.5%). It should be noted that the mean value of the relative change of internal conflict is 1.26%, while the mean of the absolute change in internal conflict is 0.024 points.

Figure 2 demonstrates the final effect of Covid-19 death rates on the growth of civil disorder during the first two years of pandemic at different levels of government economic support. The effect is positive and significant in countries with lower government economic support (relative to GDP). This positive association reduces at higher levels of government economic support.

Figure 2: Marginal effect of Covid-19 total deaths per million (logged) on growth rates of civil disorder scores (2020–21) at different levels of macro-financial packages (% of GDP)

Source: Farzanegan and Gholipour, 2023
Note: Dashed lines represent 90% confidence intervals.

What are the wider implications of these findings?

These findings have implications beyond the individual countries in question. International organisations could consider providing financial support to governments in low-income developing countries that have been unable to implement extensive economic measures in response to the pandemic due to financial constraints.

This support would be helpful in reducing the incidence of civil disorder. Such international financial support from the World Bank reached an unprecedented level in 2020-21.

Political institutions in affected countries could contribute to internal stability during pandemics by providing various types of support to households and businesses. This could take the form of income assistance or debt relief packages. Research shows that this can have a positive effect on consumer confidence, helping a country recover from the health shock and reducing the chances of an escalating internal conflict.

Improved consumer confidence is a critical factor for boosting household spending, savings and investment. It can also improve financial decisions, productivity, trust in government and voters’ support for the government.

Progress in these areas could increase the opportunity cost of engaging in internal conflict and help to reduce the risk of such conflicts.

Where can I find out more?

Who are experts on this question?

Authors: Mohammad Reza Farzanegan and Hassan Gholipour Fereidouni
Picture by Mihajlo Marici on iStock
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