The perfect storm: Covid-19, war and inequality

A perfect storm has been brewing for decades and has set the challenge that the world will face in the coming months. The pandemic, rising inflation and the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine will be compounded and inform the turmoil to come. The intersection of weakened political representation, the decline of the middle class, and rising inequities are the pre-existing conditions that have brought us here. 

The presence of protests, riots and turmoil across the world in the middle of a pandemic now feels like an old memory. But the spike in mobilisations taking place across the world in 2020 and 2021 are recent events, and not part of a distant past. 

Mobilisations across the globe in 2020 and 2021 emerged in relation to multiple grievances. The overarching themes informing these protests relate to local tensions that were magnified by the strain to which the livelihoods of millions have been subjected. 

This discontent was expressed more clearly during the pandemic, but it was not created by the pandemic — it was accelerated and magnified by it. The pandemic and its immediate shocks accelerated the ongoing processes of destitution. The vulnerability and suffering of people across the globe are informed by the broken promises of social mobility. 

People across the world have been living under precarious circumstances for a while, trying to hold onto the void promise of meritocracy and the access to a better life. Yet, as the Chilean case illustrates (protests emerged after a 3.75% increase in the metro ticket fares), small changes can tip the scales and lead to turmoil.

Since November 2021, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the costs of food prices across the world have been and are increasing to unseen levels. These increases have been caused by the repressed demand for goods, increase in fuel prices and the increase in the costs of agricultural supplies that have brought up the costs of staples and food. Vulnerable populations have felt the effects of these increases, because  their already meagre incomes do not always stretch to meet the increasing costs in basic staples (vulnerable groups on average spend a greater share of their income on food and are more likely to suffer from higher levels of inflation). 

For better-off citizens, increases in food prices might lead to a strongly worded social-media post and a complaint about the government and taxes, but for vulnerable groups, such increases lead to difficult tradeoffs (for example, having to decide whether to buy food or pay for the bus to go to work).

Social-assistance and -protection programmes have proved invaluable across the world to help people cope with these shocks. However, we must not forget that social-assistance and -protection frameworks are akin to an airbag for a car crash: they aim to ameliorate the effect and, in the best case, protect people from harm, but they cannot stop the crash; they are a societal insurance policy. Social protection and assistance, although an insurance against a disaster, are not sufficient to change the conditions that produce vulnerability in the first place.

This was the prelude to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. War is adding oil to the fire across the world. Russia and Ukraine are important suppliers of cereals, energy sources (gas and fuel), and agricultural supplies, meaning the disruptions brought by war will further increase the costs of living and of basic staples, putting 280-million people across the world at risk of starvation

These disruptions are taking place across the world and have affected prices in both more and less wealthy countries. For example, there are limited stocks of sunflower oil in countries like the Netherlands, concerns are being raised about the effects of inflation on the midterm elections in the US and the cost of living was a prominent focus in the recent French elections;  turmoil has also been observed in Peru, Indonesia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. These are the canaries in the coal mine of what we will experience in the following months.

These tensions are also making it more costly for countries to access resources to try to bid for staples in the international markets, bringing a higher risk of economic defaults, and further constraining the financial space for governments to respond to the needs of their citizens.  

This crisis will not be a week- or month-long crisis. Producing goods that can cover the gap in supply will take time: new crops replacing the Ukrainian and Russian crops can take periods of at least six months to yield the foods that the world urgently needs, now. Whereas increasing energy output will be easier, given the nature of the oil-producing industry (although the climate impacts of doing so are significant), the capacity to produce fertilisers to replace the supply from destroyed industries will also take time to develop. 

In the meantime, people are struggling to survive, and unless clear political leadership brings about necessary measures to support those in need and undertake necessary structural reforms (such as taxing wealth that does not produce quality jobs or development), asking citizens in need to act as a buffer is a recipe for turmoil.  

Society also needs to acknowledge its collective sin — normalising selfishness and inequality. Societal responses  — except from activists fighting to protect their communities, have largely been the equivalent of the “thoughts and prayers” used so often and so uselessly in the wake of school shootings in the US.

Social solidarity, in addition to the active role of the state prioritising its citizens, is the only way we can emerge relatively unscathed from this storm.

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