BEIRUT — As more than half the people in the world hunker down under some form of enforced confinement, stirrings of political and social unrest are pointing to a new, potentially turbulent phase in the global effort to stem the coronavirus pandemic.
In locked-down Lebanon, which was confronting financial collapse even before the coronavirus paralyzed the economy, angry people have swarmed onto the streets in Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli on at least three occasions. In Iraq, where a six-month-old protest movement demanding political reforms fizzled in the face of the country’s coronavirus curfew, there have been spontaneous but brief outbursts of rage in the city of Nasiriyah and the impoverished Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City.
For now, fears of infection are keeping most people indoors. Strict controls imposed by governments and security forces deter the kind of organized protests that were sweeping the world from Hong Kong to Chile before the pandemic struck. The health crisis has come as a boon for some authoritarian leaders, empowering them to introduce the kind of controls on their citizens they could only have dreamed of before the spread of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
In Kenya as of Saturday, as many people had died in police crackdowns on citizens defying curfew as of covid-19, according to human rights groups and government statistics.
But the restrictions aimed at halting the coronavirus are also causing new poverty, new misery and new rumblings of discontent among the world’s working poor, for whom hunger can appear to be a more immediate threat than being infected.
“I’d rather die of the virus than die of hunger, or see my son or my wife go hungry, but I can’t provide them with food,” said Hussein Fakher, 20, who used to earn a little less than $20 a day driving a tuk-tuk in a now-shuttered market in Baghdad. He got into a fight with police who tried to fine him for violating Iraq’s curfew when he went out to seek work. “What should I do?” he asked. “Beg? Steal?”
The United Nations and the International Monetary Fund are among those that have warned in recent days that the pandemic could unleash what U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called “a significant threat to the maintenance of international peace and security.”
With the IMF forecasting the worst global recession in nearly a century, there is a risk of “an increase in social unrest and violence that would greatly undermine our ability to fight the disease,” Guterres said.
Wealthier countries where workers are losing jobs by the millions are not immune. Conservative groups in the United States are organizing protests against lockdowns in several states, including Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia. In Germany, courts have ruled in favor of groups seeking to stage demonstrations in several towns and cities against coronavirus restrictions.
In Italy’s relatively impoverished south, the lifting of restrictions earlier this month led to a crime wave that obliged police to guard supermarkets targeted for robberies by hungry citizens.
But it is the world’s poorer nations, which can’t afford subsidies for those who lose jobs, that are most vulnerable to heightened unrest, said Cátia Batista, professor of economics at Lisbon’s Nova University. More than 2 billion people worldwide depend on daywork to survive, according to the International Labor Organization, and for many of them, not working often means not eating.
A recent study by a U.N. think tank, the World Institute for Development Economics Research, warned that 500,000 people could slide into absolute poverty as a result of the pandemic’s restrictions, reversing three decades of progress in the war on poverty.
“If people don’t work, they don’t get paid, and there is a risk of hunger,” said Batista. “The natural response is unrest.”
The emerging economies of Africa will also be badly hit, she said. Relatively few coronavirus cases have been reported there so far, largely because of the lack of testing, but many Africans will be questioning why they are unable to work when there appears to be no immediate threat to their lives.
The Middle East, already ravaged by war, could be a key flash point, analysts say. The Arab Spring revolts of nearly a decade ago are still playing out in the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya. A second wave of protests in Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria over the past year was tamped down by the restrictions aimed at halting the pandemic, but that quiet may not last.
Hardship has already triggered several individual acts of desperation. A video circulating on social media in Lebanon showed a man setting fire to his taxi after police ticketed him for breaking the lockdown. Another showed the flaming figure of a Syrian refugee running in a field, after he set himself on fire because he was unable to feed his family.
Another man died after setting himself on fire in Tunisia, where the spark of the Arab Spring was lit nearly a decade ago by the self-immolation of a fruit seller told by a police officer that he was not allowed to sell on the streets.
The next round of unrest in the Arab world could be uglier and more violent than the organized protest movements that have sought political reforms, said Fawaz Gerges, professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.
“I fear social explosions,” he said. “This will not be about democracy. This will be about abject poverty. This is where the danger lies. This will be about starvation.”
Much will depend on how long the coronavirus pandemic lasts, said Ali Fathollah-Nejad of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. Fathollah-Nejad studies Iran, where anti-government protests that erupted last fall have subsided in the face of the worst outbreak of the coronavirus in the Middle East. A report by Iran’s parliament publicized last week suggested Iran could have 10 times the official number of coronavirus cases, currently put at 79,494, and twice as many deaths as the 4,958 officially reported.
The dangers are deterring people from taking to the streets, and the authorities can point to the health risk posed by large gatherings to discourage people from participating. “But the root causes of the protests — the economy, poverty and corruption — are not going away,” Fathollah-Nejad said.
A second or third wave of coronavirus infections could rattle even authoritarian states such as China, where the ruling Communist Party has maintained a tight grip on its citizens for the past three decades by delivering soaring prosperity in return for political loyalty.
The announcement by the Chinese authorities on Friday that the Chinese economy had shrunk by 6.8 percent in the first quarter of 2020, marking the country’s first recession since capitalist-style reforms unleashed explosive growth in the 1990s, was a reminder that the social contract could be at risk, said Yasheng Huang, a professor with the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Dozens of people in the city of Wuhan, where the coronavirus first emerged late last year, took to the streets to demand rent forgiveness after lockdown restrictions were lifted earlier this month. Violent clashes erupted between police and protesters on the border between the provinces of Hubei and Jiangxi after lockdown restrictions were lifted in Hubei and police in the neighboring province refused to allow Hubei residents to enter.
Trust in the government is key for maintaining the loyalty of citizens who are forced to endure severe setbacks to their livelihoods for the sake of quelling the spread of infections for the populace at large, Huang said. That trust was eroded by clear evidence that the government sought to hide the initial severity of the coronavirus’s spread, perhaps prolonging and deepening the economic costs to the country as a whole.
The struggle of the United States in managing its coronavirus outbreak, however, has tempered much of the frustration Chinese were feeling with their own government, he said. “The fact that the United States is failing at such a colossal level is actually helping the Chinese narrative, that they have the best system in the world to deal with this,” Huang said.
Mustafa Salim in Baghdad contributed to this report.