• The pandemic is tipping the world into a dangerously volatile new phase.
  • A lack of international cooperation in the response to the crisis is exacerbating the situation.
  • Here are five courses of action global leaders should take to head off these emerging security threats.

The world is entering a volatile and unstable new phase. Scientists are increasingly confident that the COVID-19 pandemic threat will persist, possibly for years. The global economy is headed for an economic nose dive that could rival, even exceed, the Great Depression. With supply chains fragmenting, food supplies coming under strain, and prices rising, the lights are flashing red. Not only will this translate into rising unemployment and food insecurity, but it could quickly escalate into political unrest, violence, and conflict.

While some forms of crime have decreased, tensions are already flaring around the world, and not just in war zones. Protests, many of them violent, have broken out from Brazil and India to Kosovo, Malawi and South Africa. Police repression is also increasing from Kenya to the Philippines. Signs of fragility are not confined to poorer countries or even to marginalized communities in wealthier cities. The yellow vests movement has taken to the streets of Paris, while armed protesters have marched on state assemblies in the US denouncing the lock-down.

The lack of international cooperation to tackle a global pandemic is not helping. The UN Secretary-General has called for a global ceasefire, reductions in sexual and domestic violence, and proposed a plan to tackle the devastating consequences of the crisis. But major powers have been slow to rally in support. The Security Council didn’t meet to discuss COVID-19 until the 100th day of the pandemic, and then it failed to come up with any meaningful way out of its crippling paralysis. The G20 and G7 have yet to set out a comprehensive plan toward response and recovery. Calls for debt relief and cash injections for lower-income countries from the World Bank and IMF are critical, but need to be rapidly scaled-up.

COVID-19 is putting hard security threats between nations back into the spotlight. The geopolitical rivalry between the great powers is likely to worsen as the American and Chinese economies become less interdependent. The next tier of major powers poses risks as well. Europe has been hit hard by the virus, once again fraying ties between the Eurozone’s stronger and weaker economies.

At the same time, the fragility agenda that got underway during the 1990s and 2000s is going global. In the past few years, the World Bank and United Nations have converged on an analysis where violent conflict is driven by a combination of failing government institutions and the grievances that fester when groups feel excluded and neglected. As the pandemic and ensuing economic crisis unfold, these conditions will increasingly be found in many, if not most, countries in the world. This is not an agenda limited to poor countries at war, but is much broader and more insidious.

At the very least, the risks of violence will rise in the most vulnerable countries and cities. Keen not to let a good crisis go to waste, armed groups, terrorists and organized criminals are already exploiting the pandemic. They will find further opportunities - including in cyberspace - once bailout packages begin to flow. Violence against women and human rights abuses have already spiked – both of which are harbingers of other forms of violence. This is set to intensify as at least 1.5 billion children and young people are sent home from their schools and universities. Many will be angry as they lose opportunities and a minority will convert this anger toward more dangerous purposes.

The risk of an upsurge in violence is both obvious and highly destructive. Lives will be lost, futures ruined. Governments – already playing an exhausting game of whack-a-mole – will be further undermined if security is in short supply. Spiralling insecurity and conflict will also undermine the collective willingness to work together to tackle shared challenges. When people feel isolated and afraid, they can become defensive. While the many expressions of solidarity are to be welcomed, when in “fight or flight” mode people are more likely to support populist and nationalist responses. With less competent leaders in charge, millions of people could die unnecessarily. In the wake of more protectionism and decaying supply chains, the global depression will be longer and more painful.

Job losses could be worse than those following the 2008 financial crisis
Job losses could be worse than those following the 2008 financial crisis
Image: IMF/Eurostat/BBC

The past weeks have seen the world waking up to the scale of the coming economic crisis. Global banks and investment firms are bracing themselves. The real economy is also under unprecedented strain with massive numbers of small and medium-sized businesses closing down. In the process, joblessness is rising to record levels - in the hundreds of millions - and trillions of dollars of growth are being shaved off the global economy. A similar awakening is now needed to the seriousness of emerging security threats, accompanied by a willingness to take action that is as bold as the huge cash injections being made available in loans, grants and debt forgiveness by the G20, IMF and World Bank.

A five-step plan

First, an urgent and clear signal is needed from global institutions and major powers that security and safety are key priorities. The UN Security Council must do everything it can to de-escalate tensions between the US and China. The current batch of non-permanent members and those that will be elected in June bear a heavy responsibility, given deep divisions among the P5. The G20, G7 and NATO – along with the African Union, the EU, BRICS and other regional bodies - must also contribute to deescalating geopolitical tensions and set out strategies to ensure peace and security on the ground. The Security Council should rally to support the Secretary General's call for a global ceasefire.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?

Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic requires global cooperation among governments, international organizations and the business community, which is at the centre of the World Economic Forum’s mission as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation.

Since its launch on 11 March, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform has brought together 1,667 stakeholders from 1,106 businesses and organizations to mitigate the risk and impact of the unprecedented global health emergency that is COVID-19.

The platform is created with the support of the World Health Organization and is open to all businesses and industry groups, as well as other stakeholders, aiming to integrate and inform joint action.

As an organization, the Forum has a track record of supporting efforts to contain epidemics. In 2017, at our Annual Meeting, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) was launched – bringing together experts from government, business, health, academia and civil society to accelerate the development of vaccines. CEPI is currently supporting the race to develop a vaccine against this strand of the coronavirus.

Second, there must be levels of international solidarity and coordination that are on par with the Second World War. The crisis underlines the importance of ensuring redistribution and especially support for the most vulnerable - not least the unemployed, underemployed and working poor. At the very least, this is about enlightened self-interest. These are often the very same groups that deliver essential health services, maintain food supplies, and keep utilities operating. A global fund for social protection that supports the poorest of countries and a concerted focus on tackling inequality is essential. This is not just a matter of need. Billions of people that are facing joblessness are not going to sit idly by while elites—who ignored the warning signs of this crisis—carry on.

Third, the international system needs a global insecurity monitoring system to track grievances and signal unrest before they escalate into violence. A shared platform for analyzing conflict risk has long been promised but not delivered. The World Bank and UN have agreed in principle to undertake shared analysis of conflict risks. It is now time for them to draw on external expertise to gain access to the real-time mapping, remote sensing and digital data they need to deliver a comprehensive assessment tool. The monitor can then feed other early-warning systems, especially those for food insecurity and hunger, so that they become more sensitive to triggers such as spiralling unemployment, rising mistrust of government, unrest in prisons and more.

Fourth, mayors and other subnational leaders must step up, as they have done for climate change. Local government is both the front and last line of violence prevention, and mayors have increasing access to high-quality evidence of what works. Parts of cities were already bearing a vastly disproportionate burden of the world’s violence, while being marginalized, starved of opportunities and denied access to quality public services. These neighbourhoods are now suffering the worst from COVID-19. Targeted action is needed to scale up testing and treatment in the hardest-hit areas, channel subsidies and safety-net support, and implement evidence-based violence prevention programmes. Community leaders, criminal justice actors, social services and local business coalitions all have an essential role to play in this urgent task.

Fifth, the world needs to commit to massively ramping-up programmes to prevent and respond to violence against women and children. The UN Secretary-General has called for urgent action to protect women and children during the pandemic. The evidence for how to respond to this call is compelling. Indeed, WHO, UNICEF, UN Women, the World Bank and others are already united behind a common set of strategies and are working with governments on their implementation. The Spotlight Initiative to eliminate violence against women and the Global Partnership to End Violence againstChildren provide a “shovel ready” route for accelerated action.

The COVID-19 pandemic is revealing the fault lines in every country, not just those already struggling with conflict, violence and fragility. Through the Sustainable Development Goals, every country in the world promised its people that they would live free from fear and that they would deliver significant reductions in all forms of violence. We now all fear for our futures but must take the choice to use this decade to put humanity back on a peaceful, healthy and sustainable path.