Do pandemics inevitably lead to social unrest and conflict?

First, the pandemic, then widespread protests and now the war in Ukraine. But are these things all linked? It turns out that history is full of examples of epidemics leading to a prolonged period of social unrest and even war.

Roberto Censolo and Massimo Morelli writing in the journal Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy point to numerous plagues in history when social tensions built up over the course of the epidemic and acted as incubators for social uprisings in the years following.

Analysing 57 epidemic episodes between the Black Death of the 1300s and the 1918 Spanish Flu, they found that protest movements that predated the epidemic were initially dampened, or “crowded out” during the epidemic displays of national unity. However, in the aftermath of the epidemic social unrest increased sharply.

According to the study, this happens for three reasons. First, the policy measures deployed to limit the spread of the disease, like lockdowns and compulsory mask-wearing, increase the tension between society and institutions. Second, pandemics tend to have unequal economic and health impacts on different groups in society, exacerbating inequality. Third, “the psychological shock” caused by the pandemic can lead people to believe irrational narratives about the disease’s causes and spread.

A symbiotic relationship between pandemics and conflict?

According to scholars Alexi Gugushvilil and Martin McKee, wars and epidemics have a long and close history: “on the one hand, circumstances associated with wars may facilitate pandemic spread; on the other hand, COVID-19 has already heightened xenophobia and nationalism, which in turn can encourage armed confrontations.”

They also point out that public discord is often exploited by powerful forces during these times for their own objectives: “Those German municipalities that suffered most in the 1918 influenza outbreak were the ones that saw the greatest electoral gains for the Nazi Party a decade later”.

Has the pandemic caused inequality to worsen?

Analysis from the IMF suggests countries with higher income inequality when a pandemic strikes are more vulnerable to social unrest and polarisation.

Inequality has risen sharply in many advanced countries since the 1980s, often blamed for rising social tensions. This is seen starkly in countries like the USA which shows a clear trend of rising incomes for the top 10% and falling incomes for the bottom half of the population. By contrast, New Zealand and Australia remain “significantly more equal than North America” according to a 2020 report from The World Inequality Database. However, another measure that is linked to social inequity and unrest — labour share of income — has fallen dramatically across the board since the 1980s.

Recent studies suggest that income inequality may have actually improved during the pandemic in many developed countries due to generous government spending programmes. However, wealth is likely to have become more concentrated due to asset price inflation caused by extremely loose monetary policy.

As Michael Dauderstädt writes in Intereconomics, while the pandemic may not have increased income inequality, it has undoubtedly affected people differently. The poor tend to have a higher incidence of pre-existing health conditions and less access to healthcare. They are also more likely to live in overcrowded houses and are less able to work from home. Over time, these differences reinforce income and wealth inequalities, providing a breeding ground for social unrest.

Fear of being left behind

While rising economic inequality may be only part of the recent protests, the discontent that predates the pandemic stems from a perception by parts of society that they are being ignored or left behind.

A recent IPSOS study found that the increasing pace of digitisation and climate change tended to be interpreted as a threat, particularly by people with less access to education and income. The increasing pace of these transformations raised the danger of further polarisation of society and an increase in anti-democratic attitudes which disrupts social order.

Despite the historical precedents, the future is not set in stone. It depends on policy settings and measures adopted at this pivotal point in history. What’s clear is that unless the underlying causes of inequality and polarisation are addressed the social upheaval will only compound over time. As author James Clear writes in Atomic Habits: “Riots, protests, and mass movements are rarely the result of a single event. Instead, a long series of microaggressions and daily aggravations slowly multiply until one event tips the scale and outrage spreads like wildfire”.



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