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Do pandemics contribute to social unrest?

Published on January 14, 2021 by Ceci Jones, Indiana University IT Communications Office

We've all seen the headlines:

  • Scenes from U.S. Capitol as rioters storm building
  • French students clash with police as coronavirus protests loom
  • Demonstrators storm Serbian parliament over coronavirus lockdown

As the coronavirus rages across the globe, sickening more than 81 million people and killing nearly 2 million, social unrest appears to be on the rise. Rebecca Cordell, Ph.D. (University of Texas at Dallas), Reed M. Wood, Ph.D. (University of Essex), and Thorin M. Wright, Ph.D. (Arizona State University), knew they had an interesting research question to dig into.

Cordell, an assistant professor in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas, uses statistical and computational methods to pursue her research interests in state repression, political violence, human rights, and measurement.

In her 2020 research project, "Epidemic Outbreaks and Repression Dynamics," Cordell and her team used the Indiana University-led Jetstream cloud computing system to study how epidemic outbreaks affect respect for human rights.

Rebecca Cordell, assistant professor in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences at the University of Texas at Dallas.

"Epidemic and pandemic outbreaks as well as the policies that governments implement to tackle them can create grievances and opportunities for increased dissent," she said. "The research question we seek to provide an answer to is this: Do epidemics and pandemics influence patterns of social conflict and dissent in geographical areas experiencing a disease outbreak?"

Jetstream to the rescue

How exactly does one study such a complex issue? Cordell, Wood and Wright examined sub-national data in 48 African countries from 1990 to 2017, found in two data sets: social unrest information from the Social Conflict Analysis Database, and epidemic information in the International Disaster Database. Via Jetstream, they used R Studio to geocode event data on demonstrations, riots, and epidemic outbreaks—followed by a regression analysis using a matched sample of first-order administrative units.

"This research idea has been made possible by free resources like Jetstream, found via the Texas Advanced Computing Center," Cordell said. "When we started at the end of March 2020, we were all working from home, and our personal computers weren't doing enough for us.

"Thanks to Jetstream, we were able to run spatial models at the subnational level within countries that were very easy to use, set up, and maintain," she said. "The results of this analysis will play an important role in understanding the relationship between communicable diseases and social unrest events in the wake of the COVID-19 global pandemic."

A good start, with more opportunities for future research

After much data analysis, Cordell, Wood and Wright's research is producing some important findings.

"Our research shows that epidemics do have a statistically significant positive effect on the number of social unrest events, particularly in the case of riots," she said. "Disease outbreaks produce intense feelings of fear, anger, resentment, and alienation among populations. There is much anecdotal evidence from historical cases and contemporary media reports suggesting epidemics create conditions conducive to social unrest, specifically, and a mistrust of the state's response to the epidemic itself may induce the backlash and spur dissent."

Cordell, Wood, and Wright hope to continue their research into these issues, especially as disease experts warn of future pandemics looming.

"These results show us a potentially important empirical relationship between disease outbreaks and observed levels of social discord and unrest. Our findings suggest several areas for future research including the need to examine the causal mechanisms that link epidemics and unrest. This was a really quick project, and thanks to Jetstream and other Texas Advanced Computing Center resources, we were able to get this done fast. Notably, there are some important policy implications here. If we can discover which policies are good or bad for creating social unrest, that can help countries right now around the world and in the U.S.," she said.


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