Covid-19 (C19) is not just a public health issue. It will have serious consequences for stability and security in many countries, with implications both for the countries themselves and for their international partners. Existing partnerships based on assumptions about a status quo that no longer exists will need to be reviewed and redesigned. Change and uncertainty will be the new normal for the foreseeable future; coupled with high levels of worry, mistrust and low capacity. Rethinking how to support positive change, and how to mitigate negative change, will be all the more important; as will programming tools which prioritise flexibility, adaptability and deep understanding.
Although many will be directly affected by the spread of the virus, it holds out the prospects of far reaching change, both good and bad. The virus will change the cast of characters in power; and it will alter the balance of power in any number of ways – sometimes with the effect of making the weak weaker. It will change the relationship between citizen and state, either because the two have found a new, more equitable form of partnership; or because in an attempt to hold on to power and privilege, elites have resorted to repression of their people. Whatever the future, it is not the one upon which most planning to date has been based.
The C19 crisis shows the inter-connected and inter-related nature of the world today. What affects others far away can have a direct effect on the safety, security and stability of those nearer to home. If nothing else, C19 has shown that we are all neighbours now whether we like it or not.
First order effect: An integrated human security crisis.
For many countries, the immediate impact of the C19 crisis will be measured in humanitarian terms, as food insecurity, lack of access to health and other basic services, and unemployment, affect the lives of many. A likely consequence of this will be insecurity and displacement – as people move towards actual or perceived sources of supply; a rise in malnutrition; and an increase in vulnerability. Responding to the human crises which flow from the effect of C19 on systems will require an expensive and extensive, but broadly straightforward set of responses. At the heart of such responses should be a key role for governments. But – as is often the case in humanitarian emergencies – governments may quickly be found to be overwhelmed or distracted.
And as either government systems buckle and/or the international community responds too slowly, there will be a growth in frustration and anger. Citing the danger of a break down in law and order, some states will resort to repression. The scale of such a threat is hard to predict, but it would certainly be associated with an increase in violence and human rights violations by state actors. Highly regrettable as this will be, the real, longer term casualties will be the decay of national institutions for governance and a wider impact on rules-based systems. This in turn may skew the environment for constructive international relations and cooperation as governments turn inwards at a time when multilateral and integrated approaches will be required more than almost ever before.
Second order effects: A place for bad things to grow
As dissatisfaction grows, there is a risk of rising dissent and disorderly protest. This will both feed on, and be fed by, any sense of marginalisation and exclusion occasioned by the nature of the response to the C19 crisis. Informed by these dynamics, the conduct of governments will be a key driver of the pace at which this trend gathers with weaker or more repressive governments most vulnerable. Unless countered by a real and genuine sense that government and people are united with a common cause, conditions conducive to increased violent extremism and recruitment to armed groups may arise. Countering this based on existing relationships has always been hard. Doing so with a group of potentially new actors and issues will require a high degree of agility and diplomacy.
Who you know: A changing of the guard
At an individual level, C19 has been shown to be a most indiscriminate of viruses. Powerful and wealthy people are as susceptible to the illness as ordinary citizens, even if they may have more resources at their disposal with which to manage the wider impacts of the crisis on their lives. In a context where relationships with key individuals have formed the basis of wider engagement, it is entirely possible to believe that some of these people will change. And such changes will have consequences, either for overly personality dependent partnerships, or – when the virus affects a pivotal person – the balance of power within a state, government, regime or governing clique. The status quo will change in many places, and the prospects for it to shift back again seem remote.
In countries with strong democratic institutions, systems of government will take knocks but are likely to be resilient enough to cope with changes in key personalities or individuals. Setting aside normal politicking, what characterises these systems is an enduring and underlying trust between citizen and state institutions which, in times of crisis, transcends normal bickering and focusses on the fundamental essence of national identity and values. In some instances, this may prove to be a positive as the general erosion of trust in governments is reversed at a time of crisis. But equally, it could give rise to a further boost in populist regimes, more inclined to pull up the drawbridge than to seek integrated, multilateral solutions to their problems.
But in countries with weaker systems, carefully constructed constellations of power are at risk of becoming unbalanced, leading to the sort of power vacuum which risks coups, power grabs and internal putsches. Although perhaps business as usual for some countries, such shifts will place a premium on understanding new dispensations. And the death or incapacitation of a key leader could ignite a succession battle which distracts government away from the key task of dealing with either the virus or its consequences and towards regime survival. Without effective democratic institutions to supervise (and limit) these changes, many countries – even ones which, pre-C19, had seemed stable and reliable partners – will be vulnerable to political crisis. But inherent in political crisis could be the seeds of further opportunity, again emphasising the need to understand the nature and drivers of change before implementing either short term responses or long term interventions.
A common response to the C19 crisis has been the spontaneous formation of community based, self-help groups – often born out of little more than a sense of common identity and a natural need to support families, friends and neighbours. In some countries, such groups have formed a stop gap whilst governments prepare to respond. But in others, they are likely to form the majority of the support available to ordinary people. This growth in organised civil society offers a potential basis for new alliances between ordinary people and government. But it might also manifest itself as a threat to controlling regimes as civil society forms the core of a new, distributed opposition to governments which are not seen to be acting in the common best interests of their populations. The informal nature of these groups will make them hard for governments to counter or ignore.
Beyond any immediate humanitarian response to the effects of the C19 outbreak, the current situation offers opportunities to re-work the landscape of citizen-state relations into the future. Support to promote the notion that citizens can be both recipients of, and partners in, government action offers the prospect of positive collaboration on issues of common concern. This, in turn, offers the potential to alter fundamentally the nature of the relationship between citizen and state, away from one characterised by mutual hostility towards one where each recognises the value and contribution of the other. Progressive regimes could be helped to harness the value of a more inclusive and responsive approach for their legitimacy.
The likely weaknesses of governmental responses in many less developed countries also offers the opportunity to help erode the power base and legitimacy of regimes which are overly concerned with their survival at the expense of the welfare of their people.
At a local level, the current situation presents the potential to recognise the value of trusted community-based groups and organisations which can act as a vital interface between government and people, especially at times of crisis; and which can offer positive collaboration between citizen and state. And some – but not all – of these organisations will know well how to navigate the complex cloud of politics and interests which surround decision making in, and about, their communities. The hard task will be determining which organisations are capable and effective; and which are not.
Globally, responding to the threats which flow from the C19 crisis will place a premium on good quality, integrated multilateral action. At a time when political instincts will be towards national, unilateral action, the real solutions will be found in more collaborative international action which takes a multi-dimensional approach to what amounts to an existential threat to nearly all forms of government and regime.
A lot of security and stability related official development assistance in recent years has been focussed on countering what are actually only indicators of wider governance failings. The C19 crisis suggests that the existential threat to many countries is not, in fact, terrorism or violent extremism. They are just a symptom of indifferent – or weak or sloppy – governance. The real threat turns out to be that governments cannot service the interests of their people when the chips are down; in part because they are ill equipped to understand how to engage new forms of threat, and in part because they do not want to. And beyond the immediate humanitarian consequences of the C19 crisis, there is a danger that long term decisions will be taken hastily and on the basis of short-term analysis. Captured by the close quarter battle, there is a danger that decision taken now in haste may set up lasting damage into the future.
In this respect, then, it is worth recognising that there is a further C19-related after-shock to come. It is one in which self-serving regimes (and the partnerships which sustain them) will be exposed in the hostile glare of a population which has too long swallowed the line that services come at the cost of passive submission; and that the price of disobedience is chaos. The only sustainable response to this after-shock will be through improved, more equitable citizen-state engagement in which governments and governed alike recognise the added value of their mutual collaboration on issues of common concern. Short term fixes will just compound the errors which C19 now offers the chance of correcting in the longer term.