• At least 158 countries recorded pandemic-related violence between January 2020 and April 2021.
  • These incidents ranged from individual attacks to anti-lockdown demonstrations that turned violent.
  • In all, there were around 5,000 such incidents, according to the Global Peace Index 2021.

World peace suffered a series of setbacks last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Between January 2020 and April 2021, pandemic-related violent incidents were recorded in at least 158 countries. These incidents ranged from individual attacks aimed at people of Asian descent through to anti-lockdown demonstrations that turned violent. In all, there were around 5,000 such incidents, according to the Global Peace Index 2021.

Published annually by the Institute for Economics & Peace, the 2021 index records changes in violence, conflict and peace across three domain areas: safety and security, ongoing conflict and militarization.

On the effect of the pandemic on global peace, the index says: “Although key indicators of internal conflict did decrease in 2020, the impact of the pandemic on active conflicts was short-lived, and the total level of political and civil unrest rose over the past year.”

a chart showing violence in the pandemic
Violent acts peaked in April 2020. Image: IEP Global Peace Index, 2021

Civil unrest and demonstrations decreased in the early days of the pandemic, perhaps unsurprisingly. But overall, the total number of protests increased worldwide in 2020. Anti-lockdown protests were a major contributor to that trend, particularly in Europe, the report states.

Taken as a whole, violent pandemic-related violent incidents reached their peak in April 2020, according to the index, which measured “an average of 200 violent pandemic-related events per month from August 2020 to April 2021”.

Broader trends in global peace and violence

Of the three areas measured by the Global Peace Index, only militarization saw any signs of improvement in the 2021 report.

Militarization improved by 4.2%, while ongoing conflict and safety and security deteriorated by 6.2% and 2.5%, respectively. Conflict in the Middle East was cited by the report as the chief reason for “most of the deterioration in peacefulness over the last decade.” The well-publicized troubles in Syria, Libya and Yemen are at the heart of that, the index says.

Of 163 countries covered by the Index, 111 have seen improvements in the militarization category, with 87 countries decreasing the proportion of their GDP spent on the military. But here the index sounds a note of caution, saying: “However, since 2014 there has been little improvement and there are now signs that militarization is increasing.”

Military spending increased in absolute terms, and as such the economic impact of violence increased in 2020 to $14.96 trillion – equivalent to 11.6% of global GDP.

Indexed trend in peacefulness by domain, 2008 to 2021 (2008=1)
Militarization shows signs of increasing. Image: IEP Global Peace Index, 2021

The number of deaths from terrorism, meanwhile, has been falling since 2014, according to the index. Although 90 countries have recorded an increase in terrorist activity since 2008. Furthermore, 2021 was the first year since 2010 that the indicators for intensity of conflict and number of conflicts improved.

Two shades of peace

There are two kinds of peace, according to the index.

One is the absence of violence and the absence of fear of violence. This is referred to as “negative peace”. The other kind is “positive peace”, which is characterized not just by a lack of fear and violence but also by the structures and institutions in place within a country to create and maintain peace.

Higher levels of positive peace are statistically linked to greater income growth, better environmental outcomes, higher levels of wellbeing, better developmental outcomes and stronger resilience, the report says.

A visual representation of the factors comprising Positive Peace.
Giving peace a chance. Image: EP Global Peace Index, 2021
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Among other things, for an environment of positive peace to exist, there must be a stable and well-functioning government, a sound business environment, guaranteed human rights and freedoms, and low levels of corruption.

The index also highlights what it calls the positive peace deficit – when a country’s overall peacefulness ranks significantly higher than the attributes for positive peace alone. This, the report warns, can be a sign of impending violence or conflict: “Sometimes, Positive Peace deficit countries may be ruled by strict regimes that suppress individual freedoms and socio-economic development, but which maintain artificially high levels of peace by forcefully imposing social order.”

In 2009, the GPI identified 39 countries with positive peace deficits, 27 of which went on to experience increases in internal conflict in the subsequent decade. The report cites Syria, Libya, Yemen, Nicaragua, Egypt, and Burkina Faso as examples of such countries, where violence has flared in recent years.