Could social unrest follow Covid-19 pandemic? Experts say past epidemics have been 'incubators' of civil strife

Inequality, xenophobia and forced policies have create tensions among the public in the past, according to experts


                            Could social unrest follow Covid-19 pandemic? Experts say past epidemics have been 'incubators' of civil strife
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The Covid-19 pandemic has the potential to sow the seeds of social unrest after it ends. It is likely to mirror conflicts that followed several epidemics in the past. Inequality, xenophobia and forced policies could create tensions among the public, according to experts.

"To different degrees, most of the great epidemics of the past appear to have been incubators of social unrest," Massimo Morelli, professor of political science at Bocconi University, and Roberto Censolo, associate professor in the department of economics and management at Italy's University of Ferrara, wrote in the journal Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy. 

However, several protests have quietened down during the pandemic. Liberate Hong Kong and the environmental activism of Greta Thunberg are some examples. According to a Freedom House annual report, only two or three protests are still active. "In this perspective, we may say that the social and psychological unrest arising from the epidemic tends to crowd-out the conflicts of the pre-epidemic period," Italian experts wrote. But at the same time, global protests may resurrect more aggressively once the epidemic will be over, they added.

But what could lead to social unrest? According to the team, it could be due to strained social and economic relations along with the restrictions imposed by governments to prevent further spread of the disease. In fact, the authors said that we are already seeing signs of "potentially dangerous frictions inside society." Prompting them are conspiracy theories and the denial of the seriousness of the issue by several political leaders.

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"Anxiety, depression, and stressful social relationships tend to trap individuals within the private sphere, so that the social ties of protest movements necessarily loosen," the authors wrote. "However, this psychological effect may direct social moods towards a higher degree of aggressiveness, such that the level of social conflict in the post-epidemic period might be expected to increase." Further, anger, rage, desperation, and hopelessness surge when people lose their jobs, and when there’s no hope, leadership, and clarity about the future, African American studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor told The New York Times.

The researchers turned to the past to investigate if social tension fueled by the epidemic caused public unrest. The team found 39 records of unrest before and 71 after an epidemic. Of the 57 epidemics evaluated, only four events had no link with disease outbreaks. Their analysis pointed out three contributing factors. First, policy tends to be at odds with the interest of people. For instance, during the 14th century Black Death, the government implemented measures like military operations, forcing people into quarantine, confining the sick, confiscating property, banning of public and religious gatherings. Second, epidemics may worsen inequality due to its disproportionate impact. Third, the psychological shock may give way for conspiracy theories on the causes and the spread of the disease, leading to social, racial discrimination, and even xenophobia. 

Susan Wade, associate professor of history at Keene State College and an expert in medieval Europe, told Newsweek the study "may give some insights into our current situation" as "there do seem to be similarities between what happened in the 14th century and the current unrest in the US."

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