The COVID-19 pandemic is having an unprecedented impact on people, politics and business around the world. Many governments have introduced lockdowns of varying degrees to contain the pandemic. These measures, enforced by the police and sometimes the military, have brought down crime rates even in some of the most violent countries around the world. However, security personnel in several countries have been accused of using excessive force against lockdown violators, and in some cases, committing crimes themselves. This pandemic has also resulted in a rise in certain crimes, or changed how they manifest. We examine some of the manifestations of traditional crime, kidnapping, hate crime and discrimination, and police overreach, in the context of the COVID-19 outbreak.
As countries have gone into lockdown to contain the pandemic, there has been a dramatic drop in the rates of some criminal activities, including homicide, home burglaries and petty crime. In some countries, especially in Latin America, several gangs and armed groups have ceased hostilities and assumed the role of lockdown enforcers. Some gangs have also suspended extortion demands. However, increased unemployment due to lockdowns, and governments’ failure to deliver aid to all citizens in need, has resulted in increased looting of grocery stores, supermarkets and food trucks in dozens of countries, including Brazil, India, Italy and South Africa. There has also been a rise in the theft of medical equipment – such as surgical gowns, masks, protective equipment and sanitisers – in several countries, including the US and the UK. Finally, fear over health workers spreading the virus has prompted a spike in verbal abuse and physical attacks against them in places such as Chile, India, Mexico and the Philippines.
Lockdown measures and widespread deployment of security forces has resulted in a decline in kidnap for ransom incidents in most parts of the world. However, as some countries partially lift restrictions and allow greater movement of people, criminals and opportunistic individuals who have been negatively impacted by lockdowns could stage more kidnappings. This is particularly likely to be the case in regions where the security situation is already volatile, such as parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East, Latin America and Asia. In fact, despite the COVID-19 outbreak, kidnapping incidents continue to be reported in conflict zones, including Afghanistan, Nigeria, Syria and Yemen. Criminal, terrorist and other armed groups are expected to exploit the pandemic to continue their operations or push their agendas.
Islamist militant groups – which kidnapped many aid workers in the past – typically seek to exploit major crises to motivate their followers and bolster their own credibility. Islamic State, for example, has described COVID-19 as divine punishment against western countries on several occasions and urged its followers to intensify attacks in their localities, which could include kidnappings. Some criminal groups are using lockdowns to bolster their profiles. Amid limited security force capacity, some Latin American cartels are operating as lockdown enforcers and even conducting charitable activities, such as distributing food supplies.
|Decreased counter-terrorism operations amid the pandemic could enable Islamic State cells to kidnap and attack more locals in Iraq and Syria.|
|Kidnappers are likely to target greater numbers of local nationals due to international travel bans and large-scale repatriations.|
Hate crime and discrimination
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a surge in hate crimes against Asian and other foreign nationals around the world. There have been numerous documented cases of racism, propaganda, conspiracy theories, verbal threats and even violence against Chinese and/or other Asian nationals. For example, in mid-April, two women verbally abused and physically assaulted two Chinese students in Melbourne. However, as the virus spread around the world, target profiles also widened. For instance, in early April, locals in Kinshasa, DRC, attacked a bus carrying French nationals, claiming they had brought COVID-19 into the country. In Guangzhou, China, Africans have complained of widespread discrimination, including forced quarantine, evictions by landlords and rejections by hotels, which occasionally led to homelessness.
Enforcement of lockdowns has coincided with reports of police overreach and abuse. Contributing factors include lack of rule of law, as well as corruption and lack of professionalism within security services. In Nigeria, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) found evidence of law enforcement officers killing 18 people between 30 March and 16 April – more than the number of COVID-19 fatalities at the time (12). In Kenya, police shot and killed a 13-year-old boy on his balcony as they moved into his neighbourhood to enforce curfews. In El Salvador, security forces allegedly arbitrarily arrested hundreds of people under the guise of enforcing restrictions, while in Paraguay, people violating quarantine rules were made to do star jumps and threatened with a taser. Such humiliation tactics have been widely employed across South Asia, especially in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. There are concerns that some countries are taking advantage of states of emergency to suppress dissent and fundamental freedoms.