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A Great and Sudden Change: The Global Political Violence Landscape Before and After the COVID-19 Pandemic

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In this special report, ACLED Research Analyst Melissa Pavlik reviews key findings from 16 weeks of data recorded by our COVID-19 Disorder Tracker, highlighting the most significant changes to global political violence and demonstrations trends since the onset of the pandemic.


The coronavirus pandemic has brought at least half of the world under lockdown (New York Times, 3 April 2020), and killed — at the time of writing — over half a million people (Johns Hopkins University, 31 July 2020). As humanity struggles against this deadly threat, the virus has transformed political priorities and behavior across the globe. Political conflict is a function of politics: as politics shift, so too do political violence patterns.

The end of June marked 16 weeks since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic (WHO, 11 March 2020). Since March, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) has monitored resulting shifts in political violence and protest patterns around the globe through the COVID-19 Disorder Tracker (CDT). The project has documented varying responses across countries and contexts. In some places, reactionary populist leaders refused to take the virus seriously, preferring to perform politics as usual against a backdrop of the rising death toll. In others, power shifted between the people and the state, with the pandemic bringing a halt to mass protest movements and increasing the opportunity for government repression (Foreign Policy, 21 July 2020). In still others, the political inequities and structural violence exposed by the state’s response spurred widespread demonstrations. While fragile peace agreements and global lockdown measures kept fighting to a minimum in some of the world’s conventional conflicts, in many others, armed groups exploited the global catastrophe to push the advantage, leading to an uptick in deadly violence.

What follows is an analysis of the ways in which the coronavirus has contributed to shifting — or static — political violence and protest patterns around the world, using the three-and-a-half months of ACLED data collected since the start of the pandemic (mapped in Figure 1.) It shows the world’s population and politics attempting to adjust to the new normal. But above all, it shows that even amidst worldwide crisis and uncertainty, political actors will use violence to pursue their objectives — and while a pandemic alters their incentive structures, opportunities, and timelines, it does not alter this reality.