COVID-19 lockdown measures to affect criminal patterns across Europe – Europe Analysis
Since the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions in February-March, multiple countries across Europe reported a significant drop in home burglaries, violent robberies, and thefts. Meanwhile the region saw an increase in burglaries at commercial establishments, theft of medical supplies, as well as racial and domestic violence.
The expected economic downturn from the lockdown will likely lead to a return to pre-crisis rates or an increase in robberies and other violent crimes and in anti-establishment sentiments while presenting human traffickers new opportunities in the long-term.
In the short-to-medium term, the disruption of narcotics supply chains will likely lead to low-level drug dealers shifting to alternative crimes, such as burglary and armed robberies, and the sale of more dangerous alternatives. Going forward, supply shortages and increasing demand for illicit drugs may increase gang-violence as restrictions begin to ease.
Nonessential travel within Europe should be voided as per government directives amid COVID-19, while remaining cognizant of local criminal activity.
Decrease in home burglaries, violent robberies, and drug trafficking
Multiple countries have reported a shift in criminal activity since February when countries began implementing COVID-19 precautionary measures.
Spanish police recorded a roughly 50 percent decline in criminal offenses compared to the same period in 2019 since the partial lockdown on March 14.
French authorities reported a 45 percent drop in crime rates between March-April, with the most significant decreases seen in burglaries of accommodation, robberies with weapons, and vehicle thefts.
Italy witnessed a 72 percent decrease in home robberies in March 2020 compared to 2019, while other robberies dropped by roughly 54 percent and drug-related offenses by 46 percent.
Dutch, German, Greek, Irish, and Swedish authorities witnessed a similar reduction in thefts and burglaries, with thefts in Greece dropping by 25 percent as of April.
Slovenia witnessed a recent decrease in burglaries, robberies in residential areas, and property crimes compared to 2018.
Knife crime reportedly declined in London in the latter half of March, while public violence and home burglaries decreased across the UK.
The French anti-narcotics agency, OFAST, reported in early April that the suspension of air traffic significantly disrupted the inflow of cocaine. Reports also indicate that supply shortages have also been recorded in Germany since the closing of borders. Nonetheless, trafficking networks have attempted to smuggle drugs via cargo. In the UK, drug treatment experts warned that a drop in the supply of narcotics has resulted in users turning to more dangerous alternatives such as the synthetic opioid Fentanyl, which can be obtained with a prescription.
Increase in commercial burglaries, theft of medical supplies, domestic and racial violence
Despite the decrease in certain crimes, other offenses have witnessed an uptick.
Large numbers of scams, thefts, and the illegal sale of medical supplies were recorded across Europe in recent months. Three pharmacists in southern France were arrested for illegally reselling face masks, as per March 28 reports. Individuals were arrested in Hungary and the Netherlands for scamming individuals and hospitals into buying non-existent protective masks. On March 23, oxygen canisters were stolen from a hospital in the UK. Multiple incidents of verbal and violent attacks on healthcare workers and vandalism of ambulances were also reported across the region. Interpol stated that organized crime is thriving by trading in counterfeit goods due to an increased demand for medical and hygiene products.
Multiple countries recorded an increase in burglaries at closed commercial establishments, pharmacies, and other stores that remain open, with Madrid recording nine pharmacy robberies in one day. In Italy, theft and robbery of pharmacies has only decreased by about 13 percent compared to the overall drop of robberies of between 54 and 72 percent. Meanwhile, authorities in Sicily bolstered security near supermarkets and grocery stores as a result of an uptick in shoplifting.
There are also reports of organized criminal groups across southern Italy using the situation to extort local enterprises in need of short-term loans to cover the commercial losses.
In terms of anti-foreign sentiment, there have been a number of notable incidents targeting individuals of Asian descent in recent weeks. In the UK, the owner of a Chinese restaurant was attacked by a group in Hertfordshire, before being asked if the victim had COVID-19. An individual of Asian descent was assaulted in Munich, Germany, with the assailant spraying disinfectant in the victim’s face while yelling “corona.”
Finally, countries across Europe have reported a surge in domestic violence since the start of lockdowns. Within the first week since March 17, there was a 32 percent increase in France’s domestic violence cases and a 36 percent increase in Paris. Spain witnessed an 18 percent increase and the UK a 25 percent increase in calls and online requests concerning domestic abuse since the beginning of the lockdown.
Assessments & Forecast
Economic downturn resulting from lockdown to increase domestic burglaries, property vandalism, and organized crime in the medium-to-long term
Given that the lockdowns have significantly altered the activity of the public and criminals alike, the drop in residential burglaries, violent theft, public violence, and knife crimes is a direct effect of the quarantine measures limiting the opportunities for crimes of this nature. Therefore, it is unlikely for this trend to persist as restrictions begin to ease.
On the contrary, with the economic impact of the lockdowns likely to be felt well beyond their removal, domestic burglaries, thefts, and ATM robberies are liable to gradually rise following the easing of restrictions.
With studies following the economic crash in 2008 demonstrating a correlation between rising homicide and assault rates and economic downturns, the expected economic crisis is also liable to trigger an increase in violent crimes, especially among relatively socioeconomically underdeveloped communities. As a result of economic stress, violent robberies in relatively wealthier neighborhoods and vehicular theft are liable to rise as a means to earn money.
With certain sections of the society, especially urban youth, being likely to be disproportionately affected by the economic slowdown, these worst affected groups are liable to increasingly engage in criminal behavior. Rising poverty and unemployment resulting from the lockdowns are likely to create opportunities for organized criminal networks to increase trafficking activities and recruitment. Countries that already had a significant presence of organized crime are liable to witness increased activity. As demonstrated in southern Italy, such groups are liable to take advantage of the increased potential for human smuggling, extortion, racketeering, and money laundering, embedding themselves in local economies for the long-term. This may be exacerbated as criminal groups look to gain a footing in local businesses in order to benefit from any potential government bailouts which may look to help small businesses and the self-employed.
Popular discontent among the sectors of society most affected by job cuts and economic downturn will likely result in increasing anti-establishment sentiments and resentment towards governments and certain organizations. Companies that undertook more severe job cuts and failed to provide employees with adequate compensation are liable to be the primary targets of protests and vandalism in the months following the removal of lockdown measures.
Illicit drug shortages to see low-level dealers shift to alternative crimes in short-to-medium term and increase gang violence in the long-term
In addition to international border restrictions having significantly impacted the supply of illicit drugs from South America and Asia, they are likely to have reduced access to chemical precursors used in the production of methamphetamine, heroin, and cocaine that are largely procured from China. Given that travel restrictions to and from China were among the first to be introduced, the production of drugs has likely been impacted since January. The liquidity of trafficking groups has also likely been severely affected, especially among the mafia of Albania and Italy, with merchants unable to pay extortion fees amid lockdowns.
Due to movement restrictions during lockdowns, low-level criminals, who otherwise rely on the sale of drugs on the streets, are liable to resort to the other crimes, such as theft of medical supplies and burglaries or armed robbery to maintain a source of income. Additionally, due to shortages in the supply of heroin, dealers may also resort to the sale of more dangerous alternatives like fentanyl, which are easier to procure, store, and transport in smaller batches. In addition, supply chain issues will likely put considerable pressure on any domestic supplies in Europe, most likely Cannabis, which can be grown in makeshift greenhouses. This may catalyze a short term increase in local production, especially with police likely not focusing on such issues at present.
As restrictions begin to ease, while trafficking routes for illicit drugs will open up, the demand for cocaine and heroin is likely to be significantly higher than supply, especially in Western Europe. The resulting high prices are likely to lead to violent confrontations between gangs fighting over control of the limited supplies. With this, gun violence and homicide rates could see a rise following the reopening of borders. This is likely to be primarily focussed in urban and suburban areas that typically see high levels of gang activity anyway, as well as potentially in major port towns.
Anti-foreign attacks to recur amid COVID-19 and after opening of borders
That attacks against individuals of Asian descent were recorded in multiple countries early on in the outbreak indicates that anti-Asian sentiments are liable to persist beyond the immediate crisis, especially as multiple countries begin to question China’s handling of the crisis. This is liable to raise perceptions of a deliberate attempt by China to mismanage the pandemic, in addition to fears of Asians being carriers of the virus. Increased rhetoric by international political leaders sometimes referring to the virus as ‘Chinese virus’ is liable to further strengthen xenophobic sentiments.
This increases the likelihood of Asian-owned companies being the target of attacks, vandalism, and protests by nationalist and xenophobic groups. As quarantine restrictions ease, the risk of foreign nationals operating or residing in Europe being verbally or physically harassed is liable to persist into the medium-term. Furthermore, Asian-linked companies and enterprises may witness decreased sales due to such sentiments.
Finally, there remains a likelihood of general xenophobic sentiments persisting due to the fear of foreigners being virus carriers, as evidenced with French visitors being harrassed in the German border town of Gersheim in April. This may result in an overall decrease in intra-European travel and tourism into the medium-term, as well as travelers being subject to harassment and abuse.
Avoid nonessential travel within Europe as per government directives amid COVID-19 while remaining cognizant of local criminal activity.
Remain cognizant of possible scams and sale of counterfeit medical and hygiene supplies.
Foreign residents across Europe are advised to maintain heightened vigilance due to the elevated potential for racially motivated harassment.
Facilities that are currently non-operational due to COVID-19 restrictions are advised to take additional precautions against possible vandalism and burglaries.
Global Forecast – COVID 19
This report was released on April 1 and all information is updated as of that date.
At the start of April, the COVID-19 pandemic has reached nearly every country and territory, exceeding 870,000 cases worldwide and more than 43,000 deaths. Many countries have enacted travel bans, border closures, and lockdown restrictions in an effort to curb the spread of the virus as it grows exponentially.
While this is foremost a health and humanitarian crisis, the pandemic and global response has a cascading effect on economic and political stability, creating a range of security risks. These include civil unrest, anti-foreigner violence, opportunistic and financially motivated crime, and cyber attacks, among others. Many of these risks are exacerbated by the proliferation of misinformation and fake news. The slowdown of the global economy and the disruptions to supply chains and movement of goods is expected to have long-lasting ramifications that will prolong many of these challenges.
These challenges will vary by region and country and will require prompt and tailored action in order to mitigate the risks to safety and business continuity in the weeks and months ahead.
In the immediate term, a decline in large-scale protests and mass movements is expected amid the proliferation of COVID-19 cases globally.
Smaller, localized protests are liable to develop due to shortages of essential goods or unpopular government measures, with the risk of low-level clashes with police.
Anti-foreigner sentiment, particularly targeting individuals of East Asian extraction, raises the risk of violent or verbally abusive confrontations. Individuals from countries with major outbreaks also stand to be targeted.
Fake news and hoaxes circulated online could serve as triggers for unrest.
Impact on protest movements
A significant global outcome of the COVID-19 pandemic in the coming weeks and months will be the overall decline in mass protest movements. This is due to the restrictions imposed by governments on gatherings and efforts by the local population to implement social distancing. Global activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, for instance, have canceled all upcoming protest events in light of these concerns.
Recent prominent anti-state protest movements in particular have been significantly hit. For instance, students who have been at the forefront of the year-long anti-government protest movement in Algeria voluntarily canceled all nationwide demonstrations following the outbreak of coronavirus, even before the government issued a ban on demonstrations on March 18, while intermittent unrest in Sudan has continued, with protesters accusing the authorities of taking advantage of the pandemic to suppress the movement. Furthermore, since the outbreak of the virus, ongoing large-scale anti-government protest movements in Lebanon, and Iraq have lost momentum, while smaller protests over more localized issues have been in decline in Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, and Turkey.
In India, demonstrations against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA), which saw millions of protesters in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Pune since December 2019, will largely diminish over the coming weeks, following the nationwide lockdown that went into effect on March 25 for 21 days. That said, anti-government sentiment is liable to simmer even after the COVID-19 crisis abates. Protests against the legislation, along with other related concerns, may pick back up in some form, however, turnout is unlikely to return to its pre-pandemic numbers.
In Europe, Yellow Vests and pension protests in France that were previously well-attended and witnessed violent unrest on a weekly basis are no longer taking place on that same magnitude amid the pandemic. While Yellow Vests protests still occur, attendance and violent unrest has reduced significantly given that France is one of the countries hit hardest by COVID-19 and their strict mobility restrictions in response.
Clashes, riots, and unrest between authorities and migrants that were widely recorded on the borders of Greece have diminished significantly, yet, are still taking place as of writing. Given that neither Turkey nor Greece has claimed responsibility for the migrants on the border, these individuals remain in place and continue to protest. Violent unrest was recorded in Cyprus as well, as dozens of protesters attempted to break through barricades in an attempt to keep people from entering the country.
Response to state measures
Discontent over quarantine measures could manifest in violent incidents. To illustrate, Chadian students who recently returned from Cameroon demonstrated to denounce the conditions of their quarantine. The protest was met with a strong-handed security response involving the use of tear gas. Similarly, when citizens were repatriated to Ukraine, violent unrest was recorded outside clinics and hospitals by concerned locals afraid of contracting the virus. Individuals burned tires outside medical facilities and threw items at buses carrying repatriated citizens. These sentiments have since subsided, as repatriation of citizens has become largely routine regionwide. Quarantine and medical facilities will continue to be the focal point of localized unrest, as witnessed thus far in the New Territories in Hong Kong as well as in Indonesia, Pakistan, and Thailand.
A prominent factor that may influence such pushback will include the manner in which such measures are implemented. The issue of alleged police excesses during the implementation of lockdowns will arise, particularly in countries with a precedent of poor law enforcement. In India, for instance, the deaths of at least two individuals due to alleged police action is liable to sustain the latent risk of mob violence targeting police patrols in certain areas. Kenyan and Ivorian police have reportedly been engaging in acts of “extreme violence” to enforce the curfew instituted by the government. Their actions have been strongly denounced by civil organizations and may result in protests which carry a high potential of snowballing into larger unrest when the security forces respond to the unauthorized gathering.
Conversely, political leaders and government are also liable to face criticism for perceived suboptimal approaches to the crisis. For example, citizens protested in Colombia after President Ivan Duque decided to remove emergency measures taken by mayors and governors. These protests were conducted from home, with individuals banging pots and pans together to protest Duque’s response. Similar instances are liable to occur in Brazil as well, given President Jair Bolsonaro’s muted response to containing the epidemic. In fact, Bolsonaro participated in a pro-government rally in the midst of the global health crisis to demonstrate his lax attitude towards the pandemic.
In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s initial comments on generating “herd immunity” to combat the virus may lead to protests as the outbreak continues given the considerable backlash that his strategy provoked. However, the UK has shifted its response to COVID-19 in recent weeks and tightened mobility restrictions significantly, making the possibility of protests less likely in the near term. In fact, such protests are liable to occur after the crisis has lessened, potentially calling on the PM to resign. Moreover, given the economic toll that the situation will take on the UK, protests towards the end of the year are likely to be recorded, surrounding various Brexit issues that will likely change according to the extreme circumstances.
Following Hungary’s declaration of a state of emergency, which gave Prime Minister Victor Orban sweeping powers for an indefinite period and was strongly condemned by the opposition, the likelihood of protests increased. This is especially the case if the state is enforced for longer than is deemed necessary and is perceived as an attempt to usurp democracy.
Meanwhile, left-wing groups in countries such as Russia are liable to raise concerns over governments using the outbreak to restrict people’s rights, particularly with regards to privacy and freedom of assembly. In some instances, authorities are liable to roll back restrictive measures to a certain degree to prevent unrest. Small-scale disruptive protests in Honduras led to the temporary suspension of containment measures to ensure access to scarce resources and money remittances for lower-economic sections of the society
Despite stringent measures, local paranoia will continue to significantly escalate, manifesting as a run on stores to stockpile essentials, causing shortages and price hikes. Concerns over shortages are liable to spur localized incidents of unrest and vandalism, as well as protests against the authorities. For instance, demonstrations took place in various cities in Mexico led by unions and human rights groups. Nurses in Mexico City protested the shortage of supplies and protective equipment. In the longer term, losses in livelihood, and the suspension of humanitarian and developmental aid in hard-hit conflict zones amid an atmosphere of intensified paranoia could further influence future protest movements.
Anti-foreigner sentiment, which has been exacerbated by the health crisis, may manifest in crimes such as hate speech, violent confrontations, and vandalism. Racially-motivated attacks particularly against East Asian nationals or those of Asian extraction, who are perceived by locals to be responsible for the pandemic given its origins, will be a significant risk for the foreseeable future. For instance, there are reports of Chinese nationals being called “coronavirus” and being denied services in Kenya. In Indonesia, protests erupted upon the arrival of 49 Chinese foreign workers to Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi on March 15. It is important to note that the pandemic has exacerbated preexisting anti-China sentiment across the region. This has been seen in online campaigns in Japan, Indonesia, and Singapore, the spike in racism in Australia, and the services denied to Chinese tourists in countries like South Korea and Vietnam from the onset of the outbreak.
While countries, particularly those with strong trade partnerships with China, have warned against racial profiling, locals are unlikely to adhere to these advisories. Consequently, governments may be forced to take action to preserve their economic alliance. Anti-foreigner sentiment may also manifest in the virtual sphere, including social media campaigns, or hate speech towards Chinese nationals. Further, crimes such as vandalism targeting Chinese interests, businesses, or diplomatic missions, as well as localities with considerable Chinese communities, is a latent risk.
Further, while the prejudice was initially primarily confined to the Chinese, as locals are aware that most of the cases in Sub-Saharan Africa can be traced to Europe, there has been an uptick in the targeting of Westerners as well. To that point, on March 1-2, two cruise ships attempting to dock in Reunion Island were met with protests with some locals throwing stones due to fears that people on board, primarily Westerners, were infected given that the ship had previously docked in Thailand. Additionally, the US embassies in Ethiopia and Cameroon issued warnings of a rise in anti-foreign sentiment and reported instances of stone pelting, denial of services, and verbal harassment. Video footage to this effect circulated in the Ivory Coast as local residents harassed light-skinned people, accusing them of spreading coronavirus. This trend is expected to persist over the coming weeks with a heightened likelihood of foreign nationals being targeted and denied service.
Impact of fake news on unrest
Misinformation campaigns and hoax correspondence, which has become more prevalent in the last week as criminals seek to capitalize on the COVID-19 panic, has the potential to ignite protests. In Peru, a false statement circulated under the name of an official government agency regarding the prevention of the spread of COVID-19. In India, Uganda, and South Africa, a spike in fake news and online hoaxes has been reported in recent weeks. If these incidents are not clarified and corrected immediately, these types of misinformation campaigns can be extremely dangerous, as the public depends on official government statements for guidance and instruction. While authorities throughout the Americas may bolster their cyber capabilities to combat this threat, given the ease at which this crime can be committed, it is highly likely to recur.
Spontaneous unrest due to misinformation emanating primarily from far-right politicians cannot be ruled out. Italy’s former Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini pushed theories that China ‘created’ COVID-19 in a lab. This combined with the extended lockdown imposed on the country, carries with it the potential to result in both attacks targeting individuals of Asian extraction and people defying government orders. This is possible in several countries where far-right politicians carry considerable influence, including Austria, Germany, Hungary, and others.
A hoax email discussing information about COVID-19, believed to originate from Russia targeting Ukraine, allowed them to spread misinformation and resulted in unrest on February 20. Misinformation campaigns have been widely reported since the onset of the pandemic. In another example, posters with the name of Extinction Rebellion surfaced in the UK, stating that COVID-19 was the cure for the human race which is the ‘disease’. The environmentalist group has denied ownership of this poster. Misinformation campaigns are expected to continue in the coming weeks with the possibility of the spread of such information leading to unrest.
In the short term, supply shortages, particularly of medical equipment, along with travel restriction will lead to looting and vandalism in many countries.
Over the long term, the global economic decline is liable to cause an increase in both violent and non-violent financially-motivated criminal activity across the world.
Crime of opportunity
If government restrictions on movement, particularly in the form of curfews or lockdowns, are maintained over a long period of time, there is a potential for a significant increase in criminal activity globally.
Fear over supply shortages has already led to a run on stores for the stocking up of groceries, medicines, and other essential supplies in many countries. While most countries are currently not experiencing any shortages in food supply, a shortage of health equipment, including face masks, sanitizers, and medicines has been common, which has given rise to a black market for these products.
For instance, a group of 70 individuals looted a grocery store in Mexico, and others stole disinfectants and masks to resell them for inflated prices. In Singapore, 11 individuals were recently arrested for allegedly selling fake protective masks via a popular messaging application and an e-commerce website. In Indonesia, there are reports of individuals hoarding face masks and re-selling them at marked up prices. Medical stores in parts of India have also been incriminated in selling basic supplies at higher rates and cheating customers. This has prompted governments to impose severe punitive measures on those involved in selling these products on the black market. For instance, the Iranian government recently released a statement saying that any individual found to be selling face masks on the black market could face capital punishment. Such incidents are liable to increase in frequency, especially should lockdowns be extended, leading to potential supply shortages and in turn, an increase in localized crime, particularly in the form of looting and vandalism of local stores and businesses. This is also likely to translate to a heightened risk associated with movement to and from these essential stores. The risk is especially pronounced in countries such as South Africa, Kenya, and Nigeria where crime is entrenched in urban areas.
In countries where groups feel that their government has not enacted the proper response to ensure the safety of citizens amid COVID-19, there remains a possibility that criminal organizations will take this responsibility on themselves. For instance, organized crime groups in Brazil were recorded imposing curfews to contain the spread of the pandemic. Further, a surge in ammunition and weapons charges were recorded in the USA. While these measures are meant to be preventative, the potential for violent outcomes to arise from this behavior exists.
The pandemic is also likely to stress criminal justice systems and infrastructure as several countries have suspended judicial proceedings. Additionally, prisons and detention centres present a major challenge to the containment of the disease given the relatively poor hygiene and sanitation infrastructure. Prison riots and attempted escapes associated with COVID-19 have been reported in Argentina, Cameroon, Chile, Colombia, Ethiopia, Iran, Italy, Mexico, Panama, Syria, Thailand, USA, and Venezuela in the last few weeks. As the virus continues to spread with more cases and deaths reported daily, similar attempts are expected in the near term. This along with delayed judicial proceedings is likely to translate to an increased presence of criminal elements in society, elevating the risk associated with burglary, hijackings, home robberies, and violent crime.
The adverse impact of COVID-19 on the manufacturing sector will compel companies to either operate at minimum capacity or even halt production due to the overflow of supply. This, in turn, may lead to the layoff of workers in this sector. Labor in the construction sector is either hired on a contractual basis or remains unregistered in some countries and therefore the suspension of these projects does not entitle them to benefits. Those involved in the tourism industry are also likely to be significantly affected, as their wages are seasonal and dependent on the tourist cycle. Hence, the global pandemic will impact the daily disposable income of such low- income households.
The fall in daily disposable income combined with a hike in prices of essential goods due to supply shortages may make individuals more likely to engage in financially-motivated criminal activity. ATMs are likely to be hotspots for muggers, particularly as banks across the region remain closed and citizens become more dependent on ATMs for cash. There may also be an increase in credit card fraud, while criminals are also liable to be inventive with their modus operandi and capitalize on the paranoia and misinformation surrounding the pandemic to carry out burglaries and robberies over the coming weeks. This is exemplified by a private healthcare company in South Africa being forced to issue a notice after criminals were posing as company employees conducting home screenings to gain access to homes in several areas of Western Cape. Foreigners and expatriate workers are generally considered as soft and more lucrative targets for financially-motivated crimes, and are therefore at a higher risk of being targeted than locals.
White supremacists and other extremists
Lastly, the spread of COVID-19 has seemingly bolstered the platform of white supremacists. Far-right groups have been recorded propagating negative sentiments towards Asians, using the fact that COVID-19 originated in China to justify anti-migrant sentiments, pointing to economic losses and deaths from COVID-19 as a direct result of migration. White supremacist groups in the USA were reportedly encouraging their members to spread COVID-19 to law enforcement and Jews. Hate crimes and anti-Chinese sentiment has increased significantly in the region, particularly in the USA with President Donald Trump referring to the virus as the “China virus”. Incidents against those of Asian extraction have been recorded in Canada, USA, and other countries. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) warned that they expect a surge in crimes targeting Asian Americans amid the COVID-19 outbreak.
Given that an individual was planning to bomb a hospital in the USA and another individual was arrested after he threatened to blow up a testing facility, reiterates the potential for locations linked to the outbreak response to become targets for extremists as the global health crisis continues. A hospital director in Haiti was kidnapped and released on the same day near his residence. The doctor’s kidnapping prompted his hospital to refuse new patients in protest. While details surrounding the incident remain unconfirmed, it remains possible that kidnapping a prominent member of the medical community was somehow related to the COVID-19 crisis. In crime-ridden and unstable countries like Haiti, similar incidents are likely to recur.
Instances of fake or misguided information will continue to circulate, intended to spread malware through phishing emails, along with inflaming tensions regarding government responses to COVID-19.
Advisories have led to multiple corporations switching to a work-from-home policy, thereby increasing potential vulnerabilities and endangering company network infrastructures to cyberattacks.
Ransomware continues to be a primary method of attacks focusing on companies, with hackers expecting corporations to pay quickly in order to instantly resume already disrupted services.
Reports indicate that an increase in global cyber crime has already been witnessed as a result of the many significant changes due to the virus. Multiple coronavirus-related malicious email campaigns and downloadable files infected with malware have been uncovered. The Israeli Police issued a statement on March 19 indicating that there has been an increase in reports of “fraudulent events”, particularly cyber crimes, with over 40 complaints with regards to financially-motivated cyber crime recorded since the outbreak of coronavirus.
Furthermore, recent weeks have witnessed an increase in phishing emails with themes tied to COVID-19 to spread malware. These emails have been disguised to look as if they have been sent either by the World Health Organization (WHO) or local governments to advise on guidelines to combat COVID-19. Cyber criminals have also reportedly set up fake websites with themes tied to COVID-19 to extract sensitive information of users. For example, a software masquerading as a dynamic map produced by a US-based university to track the global spread of coronavirus was reportedly identified as malicious spyware focused on gathering personal information.
Low-level cyber crime
With COVID-19 resulting in multiple corporations instructing employees to work from home, the number of devices connecting remotely to a network will increase, thereby increasing the potential vulnerabilities to a company’s network infrastructure. The new devices connecting to the network may not be completely secure, including employee’s personal devices and home wi-fi, which may suffer from critical security flaws due to a lack of appropriate security knowledge.
Hackers are likely to employ Man In The Middle (MITM) attacks in order to gain access to sensitive data, likely compromising users through phishing campaigns disguised as links to remote meeting softwares and news about COVID-19 measures. MITM attacks intercept communications between a user and the web application or network that they are accessing without the knowledge of both parties, allowing hackers to steal and view sensitive data including passwords.
Organizations that use VPNs to tunnel all traffic through their servers may face an increased risk from hackers using freshly discovered vulnerabilities, which may have been identified and patched in the latest releases but may not have been updated on the company side. This is due to the fact that such networks largely run continuously, with scheduled maintenance potentially pushed back as a result of continuous access by employees, especially those at home.
Corporations that may temporarily forgo VPN-only access due to increased load on the system and limit the number of connections allowed are also at risk, given that their servers are being accessed directly from employee computers that may be compromised if the employee’s hardware is already infected. Companies without appropriate response plans to incidents that require a large number of employees to work-from-home are likely to face such difficulties again, with the potential for cybercriminals to research targets, choosing ones that faced the most disruptions while attempting to switch over.
High-level cyber attacks
On the other hand, the main motivation for state actors to engage in cyber crime is espionage to obtain confidential information. As countries across the region continue to impose restrictions on international travel, state actors will become more reliant on cyber espionage to access sensitive information, which may lead to a spike in state-sponsored cyber attacks. Such attacks are likely to mainly target the oil and gas sector, telecommunications, transportation, and government agencies and infrastructure.
Multiple state-sponsored groups have allegedly utilized COVID-19 concerns as part of wider geopolitical campaigns, with incidents involving China, North Korea, and Russia. In Russia, hackers from the Hades group allegedly carried out a trojan attack in Ukraine, which was hidden in documents resembling information about the virus, appearing to be from the Ministry of Health. The information reportedly led to unrest in the country, over false reports of COVID-19 cases on February 20. Chinese groups with alleged state links sent emails containing attachments designed to look like emails from the Vietnamese Prime Minister about the virus outbreak, which installed trojan malware in computers of the victims. North Korean hackers allegedly employed similar tactics, attempting to disguise malware as information about South Korea’s response to COVID-19.
Given that such cyberattacks have increased with the uncertainty and considerable media coverage surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, driving individuals to search for information, such attacks are highly likely to recur over the coming months as the pandemic continues. As already witnessed in the Czech Republic, Ukraine, and the USA, government agencies, hospitals, and other healthcare services tasked with responding to the outbreak are liable to be targeted, especially with ransomware, in the hope that the urgency of the issue may force quick payouts. The demands are likely to be in the form of cryptocurrency, such as Bitcoin, which allows criminals to evade detection. Such attacks have been repeatedly witnessed in the UK and USA in recent years, with local UK National Health Service (NHS) trusts and US hospitals being targeted by ransomware that has disrupted services by restricting access to computer systems. Given the unprecedented nature of restrictions announced to combat COVID-19, these attacks are likely opportunistic, hoping to take advantage of relaxed cybersecurity protocols among private companies and delayed deployments of IT vulnerability fixes. Sophisticated cybercriminals are likely to be on the lookout for newly registered domains by international and government agencies, as was seen at the time of the Equifax breach where multiple fake settlement websites were made due to the company using a simple phrase for the website title, which led to impersonations.
The economic effects due to the lack of tourism, downtick in oil prices, and decline in foreign exchange reserves are expected to create unrest and political instability
Popular discontent with the response to the pandemic are also likely to create unrest, while opposition parties and movements will capitalize on criticism of their governments to make political gains
Geopolitical relations are expected to be strained by the crisis, in part as countries use the opportunity to double down on existing tensions
Economic effects to have adverse impact on stability
The spread of the pandemic has compelled most countries across the world to impose severe travel restrictions. These include a suspension of all international passengers flights and the closure of all land and sea ports. Many governments have also imposed curfews to limit the movement of citizens in their cities, provinces, or countries. Many countries have suspended public and private sector services, except for vital sectors like health and food, as well as limited public gatherings.
These restrictions are having a negative effect on a wide range of economic sectors. In countries that are heavily dependent on tourism such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Jordan, Turkey, Kenya, Tanzania, South Africa, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as a number of countries in Southern Europe and the Caribbean, are most likely to be affected by these travel bans. These restrictions have also caused global oil prices to plummet by over 37 percent over recent weeks to below 20 USD a barrel as of the time of writing. This fall in global oil prices will have a significant negative impact on economies that are heavily dependent on the oil and gas sector, such as those of Egypt, the UAE, Qatar, Iraq, Kuwait, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, Russia, and Venezuela. In particular, state-controlled economies that are dependent on oil such as Algeria and Saudi Arabia will be affected in their ability to invest in other sectors of the economy, such as health, housing, and infrastructure. This may in turn aggravate the socio-economic grievances of low- and middle- income households in these countries, leading to unrest and instability.
The slowdown of the world economy and the resultant decline in exports is liable to result in a decline of foreign exchange (forex) reserves. This is especially likely for countries like Nigeria who are heavily reliant on oil exports given the effect of the continuous fall in global demand, further compounded by the sharp decline in crude oil prices, while import needs continue to rise. Further, as foreign investors withdraw money in response to the ongoing uncertainty due to the pandemic, the central banks are likely to engage in interventionist measures to stabilize forex markets as India did in the week of March 20. This puts pressure on the forex reserves of the country and consequently, India’s forex reserves fell by approximately 12 billion dollars. A decline in these reserves is liable to lead to devaluation of the currency while compromising the countries’ ability to pay for imports. Countries like Zimbabwe, which have had low forex reserves over the past years and consequent shortages of food, fuel, and medicines, are at particular risk. Shortages of any of these essential commodities due to the government’s inability to pay for it is likely to heighten discontent and potentially lead to protests and unrest. Further, the decline in reserves as the governments manage the crisis is likely to have long-term ramifications for the respective countries’ economies even once the pandemic is concluded.
Countries around the world are also hit hard by the disruptions to supply chains. Despite many countries taking measures to ensure the continued transport of cargo, there have been delays worldwide. In industries where some countries are heavily reliant on expatriate workers, travel restrictions can lead to a shortage of labor and create service disruptions. This will compel manufacturing plants to operate at minimum capacity or even altogether halt production activity, which will disrupt current infrastructure and development projects. The disruption of infrastructure and developments projects will in turn have a negative impact on other sectors of the economy. This can be seen in the Middle East mostly in the Gulf countries, while the travel bans in Sub-Saharan Africa are particularly preventing the movement of Chinese labor for Chinese development and infrastructure projects, causing large-scale delays. Further, the restriction on the internal movement of migrant workers in countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar to urban centers will further dampen their economic outlook in the coming months.
Poor government responses to exacerbate dissatisfaction
Iran’s handling of the crisis has been the worst in the Middle East, which has exponentially increased the risk of political instability in the country. Tehran initially downplayed the severity and extent of the outbreak, which caused the virus to spread swiftly across the country over a short period of time. According to the Iranian authorities, 41,495 confirmed cases of coronavirus have been recorded in the country as of March 30, as well as several members of parliament (MPs), including the deputy Minister of Health, as well as powerful clerics. However, it is highly likely that these statistics have also been understated in order to prevent mass panic and showcase the government as capable of handling the crisis. Anti-government sentiments have already been on the rise in Iran over recent years, manifesting in the form of periodic nationwide anti-government protest movements. In this context, the Iranian government’s mismanagement of the outbreak is likely to add to the local population’s dissatisfaction with the establishment. This, in turn, will further destabilize the current government.
Similarly, countries, such as Tunisia, Lebanon, Iraq, Turkey, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, India, Hong Kong, and Indonesia, as well countries across Latin America, where anti-government sentiments over either socio-economic grievances or government incompetence are currently high, may also witness an increase in local dissatisfaction with the authorities. This would further destabilize the current governments in these countries, which, in turn, would exacerbate the level of political instability over the coming months. This is especially in a country like Egypt, where the government has been cracking down on opposition as well as international media for criticizing the government’s insufficient response to the COVID-19 pandemic or alleging that the government is under-reporting the number of confirmed cases in the country. These measures by the authorities may be perceived by the local population as a government effort to further restrict freedom of speech and media in the country under the pretext of safety and security. This may elevate the locals’ perception of government incompetence and overreach, which would contribute to political instability.
Pre-existing anti-government sentiment in locations such as India, Indonesia, and Hong Kong is liable to be augmented by recent disaffection with the administrations’ perceived shortcomings in handling the pandemic. Despite the current drop in protests, such sentiments are liable to simmer in the long term, increasing the risk of domestic political volatility in the country once the outbreak recedes. Issues such as minority rights and alleged police excesses during the government’s imposition of the lockdown will remain flashpoints. This is particularly in countries such as India, given that inter-religious hostilities and friction between law enforcement and activist groups remain high since the recent wave of civil unrest over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA). The unrest in Kenya over the enforcement of lockdowns and overall violent interactions between police and the populace in DRC and South Africa are liable to raise tensions and undermine authorities, particularly in areas where there is already persistent weak governance.
Political opposition, activist groups to take advantage of crisis
The stringent measures that governments are taking to contain the spread of the virus may be viewed by opposition parties and groups to be a tool of suppression. Opposition political parties across the world are liable to capitalize on this situation and attempt to subvert supporters of the ruling parties given that the response to the crisis is going to significantly impact the approval of the country executives.
In Ghana, this was evidenced by the opposition mounted by minority parliament leaders on the approval of an Imposition of Restrictions Bill brought to the floor by the government to enable the executive to control the movement of people as a response to the virus. The minority leaders raised concerns over the unlimited authority accorded to the government by the bill. Other countries are likely to see similar opposition, which may manifest as opposition activists and supporters refusing to adhere to the regulations and a consequent uptick in protests. This is particularly likely in the case of Guinea, which has seen weekly, often violent, demonstrations over an existing political crisis.
Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists have attempted to keep protests going despite an overall drop in the frequency and scale in recent months. This has involved joining protests on pandemic-related issues such as disaffection over the establishment of quarantine centers in certain neighborhoods. While such protests are relatively limited in size and localized, they carry a continued risk of clashes, given that the current restrictions will be used to justify a harsher crackdown.
COVID-19 has raised questions and concerns on the ability of the EU to effectively respond to global crises. For a significant period, the EU ruled out the possibility of closing the Schengen borders, likely due to the political implications and ramifications of doing so. This was perceived by more right-wing opposition groups as careless and was further exacerbated by the EU’s delay in a concrete economic plan to combat the impact of COVID-19. The crisis will likely open the union up to significant criticism from Eurosceptic parties, who may argue that individual nations were not quick enough to close borders and lockdown, due to the freedom-of-movement policy.
A political rift was reported in Brazil when President Jair Bolsonaro criticized his ally, Governor Joao Doria of Sao Paulo, for imposing a lockdown, as Bolsonaro believes the panic surrounding COVID-19 is “fear-mongering”. As the crisis puts pressure on every aspect of the political sphere, harsh criticism is likely to continue, with a number of politicians who are deemed to have not taken the crisis seriously seeing much of the blame. Leaders who have traditionally been more isolationist, and are deemed to have acted in kind, are liable to see significant backlash. This is visible the criticism that President Donald Trump has received for initially downplaying the virus, which is likely to have its most significant impact in the USA. This will likely strongly impact his chances for reelection in November 2020.
Political opposition parties are further likely to question the government’s handling of the pandemic in countries that are slated to go to the polls in 2020, such as Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger, and Tanzania. With that, some upcoming elections are likely to be disrupted or postponed. Presidential elections in Bolivia have been suspended and arrangements for the presidential elections in the Dominican Republic in May are being discussed. While discussions regarding presidential elections in the USA remain premature, given the obvious disruptions to campaigning, President Donald Trump may call for special accommodations for the elections or a postponement altogether. As the global health crisis continues, political stability is likely to continue to waver regionwide.
Far-right groups have continued to peddle conspiracy theories that accuse governments of overreacting, as seen with politician Matteo Salvini in Italy attempting to garner support from the public by stating that ruling groups are impacting the economy by unnecessary placing restrictions.
Due to the anticipated decline of Iran, governments that rely on it for political power and military support, namely Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, will become more vulnerable to foreign actors that rival Iran, as well as to domestic opposition groups. The same is true for non-state actors that govern territories and rely on Iranian support, such as the Houthis in Yemen and Hamas in Gaza. This has the potential to aggravate existing conflicts or trigger new ones in these regions.
Geopolitical relations strained by pandemic
In terms of geopolitical implications, the pandemic is liable to limit any efforts by the US and China to resolve their longstanding trade conflict in the immediate term. While no action has been taken at present, certain factions of the US administration are reportedly pushing for tariffs on China in a bid to protect domestic industries that have been hit hard by the outbreak. Meanwhile, in accordance with the phase one trade deal between the two countries, China is slated to buy 200 billion USD in goods and services, but such measures are likely to be delayed, further weighing on both countries’ economies in the long term. Further, China’s recent expulsion of US-based journalists from the country is likely to raise concerns that Beijing is seeking to limit coverage of the spread and its management of the crisis.
Meanwhile, another indirect outcome of the recent pandemic has been the rise in frequency of North Korea’s missile tests. Such activity has likely mainly been triggered by the upcoming South Korean elections and frustrations with the US over sanctions, as well as the lack of progress on dialogue. However, the tests can also be seen, in part, as efforts to project normalcy amid concerns from the international community that Pyongyang remains in denial about COVID-19 cases in the country. The pandemic also will preclude a thawing in relations between South Korea and Japan. Despite ongoing trade talks, both countries have refrained from meaningful cooperation to handle the outbreak. Rather, COVID-19 has the potential to worsen the relationship; this was witnessed in Seoul’s reciprocal termination of visa-waivers for Japanese travelers, a day after Tokyo implemented such a measure.
Pre-existing political tensions have largely remained throughout the crisis. Russia banned the entry of eastern Ukrainian breakaway Donbas residents who do not have a Russian passport and Ukraine banned entry to unregistered individuals in the ‘uncontrolled territories’. Further, attacks in the Donbas have been reported multiple times amid COVID-19, reflecting the sustained conflict.
Islamic State-linked media reports shooting attack in Nizhny Novgorod on May 6; first 2018 Islamist militant attack in World Cup host city – Russia Analysis
Please be advised
On May 6, the Islamic State (IS)-linked media group, al-Amaq, claimed that a shooting attack which took place in Nizhny Novgorod, western Russia, was committed by a ‘soldier’ of the Sunni-jihadist group. According to a statement from Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) on May 4, an assailant opened fire on police officers during an identity check and barricaded himself inside an apartment in the city. The statement indicated that the perpetrator was later neutralized by security forces.
From 14 June to 15 July 2018, Russia will host the FIFA World Cup in a number of cities, including in Nizhny Novgorod. In the run-up to the tournament, Russian security forces have carried out a large number of raids and arrests, looking to neutralize militant cells made up of both Central Asian migrants, mostly based in major cities, and North Caucasian militants, mostly from the Republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia.
Since the beginning of 2018, at least 38 militant counter militancy raids have been recorded in Russia, the majority focusing on reportedly IS-linked militants. At least five of the raids occurred in or near World Cup cities, including Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, and Rostov-on-Don.
On April 17, three suspected IS-linked militants were arrested near Rostov-on-Don by FSB agents. A number of reports suggested the possibility that the militants were embedded in the city to wait until the start of the World Cup and carry out an attack during the tournament.
The claim from IS and the reports from the FSB indicate the first case of a successful attack occurring in a World Cup host city in 2018. The most recent Islamist militant attack in one of the host cities was in St. Petersburg in mid-2017. The incident underscores previous assessments that militants, from both Caucasian and Central Asian origins, are looking to focus their operations on the World Cup, so as to maximize exposure during the tournament. In addition, the developments come following the publication IS’ official newsletter, Al-Naba, on May 4 which called on its supporters to conduct attacks across Russia, underscoring the group’s continued interest in projecting its militant capabilities in the country. This assessment gains further credence considering IS’ repeated threats to the World Cup.
While there is no indication as to the origin of the militant at the time of writing, there are three main possibilities, all of which have been previously recorded in Russia. In the event that the attacker was a lone-wolf Central Asian migrant, who was locally radicalized within Russia through online and on ground Islamist networks, the incident highlights that lone-wolves in major cities are heeding to IS’ demands to carry out attacks on World Cup cities, demonstrating the threat in any city with a significant Central Asian diaspora community. In the event that the militant had links to Caucasian militant cells, it highlights attempts by the Caucasian Emirate pro-IS group to embed radicals within major cities, prior to the tournament, who will then carry out attacks. This is likely designed to occur before security in the North Caucasus becomes overwhelming around the time of the World Cup. The third option is that the militant may have had connections with both Central Asian militant networks and Caucasian cells, which would constitute a significant threat as such an assailant would be able to utilize the covert nature of the loosely linked Central Asian networks and the expertise of the well established Caucasian groups.
Going forward, a significant increase in counter-militancy operations in major cities and the North Caucasus will occur in the run-up to the World Cup. Furthermore, the potential for both minor and major attacks in all host cities remains before and during the tournament, likely looking to specifically target stadiums and locales with international attention, so as to maximize exposure.