COVID-19 and Conflict—New Working Paper

What does the threat of and the policy response to COVID-19 mean for inter-group conflict worldwide?

This is the question at the center of a new (and short) working paper, by me and my super-star colleague Colette Salemi. In this paper, using data from the ACLED Project, we track time-series trends for different types of inter-group conflict and evaluate discernible changes taking place as global awareness of COVID-19 spread.

Although concern about how COVID-19 may influence inter-personal conflict is well established (see Peterman et al. 2020 and Taub 2020), the relationship between the threat of and the policy response to COVID-19 and inter-group conflict is a bit more ambiguous. On the one hand, the pandemic may have reduced local income levels and, in turn, the opportunity cost of participating in or enacting inter-group conflict. On the other hand, seizing control of resources now may have less benefit than before the spread of COVID-19. Additionally, disruption in global supply chains (especially for food), and rising prices, may influence and motivate particular types of conflict events.

Our modest analysis highlights the sensitive relationship between COVID-19 and inter-group conflict. Future research on this topic, especially quasi-experimental research, must critically consider the complex and localized realities motivating inter-group conflict around the world in relation to COVID-19. Nevertheless, we offer three concluding thoughts.

  1. Across all ACLED countries, there is a recognizable decline in intergroup conflict events associated with COVID-19. This finding supports the parallel analysis by Berman et al. (2020). Additionally, the overall decline in inter-group conflict seems to be less due to any change in trends of violent events and is mostly driven by a declining trend in protests.
  2. We document critical heterogeneity in the relationship between COVID19, policy responses, and inter-group conflict across various contexts. In India, for example, protest events have declined but violence against civilians have increased since the beginning of the country’s national lockdown. In Syria, for another example, violent conflict has dramatically declined. By contrast, in Libya, violent conflict has dramatically increased. In other contexts, there is very little noticeable change in the rate of inter-group conflict events despite the implementation of nonpharmaceutical policy responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  3. Robust causal inference identifying the specific relationship between nonpharmaceutical policy responses and inter-group conflict will inevitably be relatively tricky. The specific details of our findings potentially threaten the internal validity of quasi-experimental studies. In Syria, for example, the observed dramatic decline in violent conflict is associated with a partial ceasefire implemented on March 5 which unknown connections to COVID-19. Specifically in the context of Syria, a country that represents a large share of ACLED conflict events in 2020, endogeneity of this sort threatens the credibility of causal estimates. In other cases, we see reductions in inter-group conflict events in the days preceding a national lockdown.

We hope our paper is useful in guiding the overwhelming task of understanding the consequences of COVID-19 around the world. Please feel free to contact me with any comments, suggestions, or feedback you may have on our paper.

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