Miranda Tomic

The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking enormous economic damage across the globe. With business at a standstill, economic fear and uncertainty grow. Recent protests in several state capitals illustrate the concerns of millions of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet. Governments, law enforcement agencies, and businesses are carefully monitoring the potential for this economic anxiety to grow into widespread civil unrest.

Looking back on recent history, political and social movements frequently flow out of periods of economic contraction. The 2008 economic recession triggered the “Occupy Wall Street” and “Arab Spring” movements, affecting businesses and governments around the world. The circumstances surrounding the Coronavirus and its economic impact are unique, but the economic pain is felt just the same. More than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment so far, bringing numbers above 20%. This is the country’s highest rate since 1934, dwarfing the great recession’s peak of 10%. The International Labor Organization estimates 81% of the workforce is currently affected by the pandemic, with the potential loss of 195 million jobs.  

Stark examples of social unrest are visible in other parts of the world further along in their response to Coronavirus. Jarring reports out of Italy show long lines at food banks, coordinated raids on grocery stores, and disturbances at banks. Police have been dispatched to protect these critical businesses, but they struggle to contain the country’s anger, which looks to be boiling over. India implemented the world’s largest lockdown over its population of 1.3 billion, sparking protests in Mumbai. In the suburbs of Paris, law enforcement faces more challenges with unrest and vandalism. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres articulated fears that the pandemic could create “a significant threat to the maintenance of international peace and security.”

Here in the US, protest activity has been increasing. Currently, they are peacefully organized and primarily directed towards state governments. Protestors are calling for an end to the economic shut down so they can restore their businesses and livelihoods. A Pew Research poll found that 43% of Americans say they have lost jobs or wages because of coronavirus shutdowns. Right now, political agitation and calls for reopening remain in the minority. A recent joint NBC News / Wall Street Journal poll showed 32% of respondents were more concerned that the US would take too long in loosening shut down restrictions. As the shut downs continue, these poll numbers are likely to rise. The economic toll will drive the potential for rising social unrest and civil disobedience.

Critical institutions, such as hospitals, grocery stores, and banks are at heightened risk and must remain vigilant as signs of unrest are increasing. New York City has recorded a 75% rise in burglaries targeting supermarkets and minimarkets. NYPD Chief of Crime Control Strategies Michael LiPetri recently noted, “The burglaries we are seeing now are more organized and specifically targeted. There’s much more night-time entry, more forced entry, individuals breaking locks to get into businesses while they are closed.” In March we saw a Utah man threatened to bomb a local hospital after he was denied a coronavirus test. A few days later, the FBI identified a Missouri man who was found to be plotting an explosive attack against a Missouri hospital. Critical infrastructure is also a vital area that should be monitored. With a substantial increase in remote work, wireless internet and cellular networks remain a potential target, as seen with recent cyber attacks on zoom calls and vandalism of 5G towers in the UK.  

The potential for organic social unrest is amplified by terrorist networks and extremist groups that are deliberately attempting to incite riots. The FBI New York Office recently reported extremist groups are encouraging members to intentionally spread the virus to members of law enforcement and Jewish people. A recent report released by the New Jersey Office of Homeland Security and Preparedness similarly indicated that extremist groups are encouraging attacks to incite panic and target minority groups and immigrants.

These trends underscore the importance of vigilance across the public and private sector. Businesses must remain attentive to economic indicators that precede protest activity, social unrest, and rising crime.  Adaptive and responsive security programs are vital to successfully navigate these unprecedented times. MSA will continue to monitor these trends closely through the duration of the pandemic and beyond, with a bench of intelligence and security experts are available for consultation.

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