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Unrest often follows epidemics, warn researchers

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London, Sep 7 (IANS) Even though several protest movements in different parts of the world appear to be weakened at the moment, global protest may return more aggressively once the pandemic is over, researchers have warned.

A sharp increase in social instability in the aftermath of the epidemic should be expected even though incumbent governments tend to consolidate, said the study published in the journal Peace Economics, Peace Science and Public Policy.

“The social and psychological unrest arising from the epidemic tends to crowd-out the conflicts of the pre-epidemic period, but, at the same time it constitutes the fertile ground on which global protest may return more aggressively once the epidemic is over,” wrote Massimo Morelli, Professor of Political Science at Bocconi University in Milan.

According to a Freedom House annual report, out of the 20 protest movements active world-wide in December 2019 only two or three are still active.

For example, the “Liberate Hong-Kong”, the environmental activism of Greta Thunberg, the “Gilets Jaunes” in France or the “Sardine” movement in Italy appear greatly weakened since the outbreak of the epidemic.

For the study, Morelli and Roberto Censolo of University of Ferrara in Italy looked at the great plagues of the past.

They analyse 57 epidemic episodes between the Black Death (1346-1353) and the Spanish Flu (1919-1920).

The researchers found that revolts not evidently connected with the disease are infrequent within an epidemic period, but epidemics can sow other seeds of conflict.

Government conspiracy, “the filth of the poor”, foreigners and immigrants have often been singled out as the cause of an epidemic.

“Overall, the historical evidence shows that the epidemics display a potential disarranging effect on civil society along three dimensions,” the authors wrote.

“First, the policy measures tend to conflict with the interest of people, generating a dangerous friction between society and institutions. Second, to the extent that an epidemic impacts differently on society in terms of mortality and economic welfare, it may exacerbate inequality.

“Third, the psychological shock can induce irrational narratives on the causes and the spread of the disease, which may result in social or racial discrimination and even xenophobia,” the study authors wrote.

Focusing on five cholera epidemics, Morelli and Censolo counted 39 rebellions in the 10 years preceding an epidemic and 71 rebellions in the 10 years following it.

On the other hand, the authors noted that, in the short-term, the necessary restrictions of freedom during an epidemic may be strategically exploited by governments to reinforce power.



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