Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess: COVID-19 and Civil Unrest



This post is part of the Constructive Conflict Initiative / COVID-19 Blog


June 1, 2020

A few months after the pandemic started in the U.S., the situation here, and elsewhere, has gotten even more difficult.  COVID-19 is still very active (and in some places it is growing faster than it had before). Yet driven by devastating economic challenges, and protests demanding restrictions be lifted, more and more states and localities are loosening “stay-at-home” orders, permitting businesses to open, and taking other steps to allow people to “get back to normal”—or closer to that. Many experts think that ill-advised loosening could lead to new surges of cases, potentially overwhelming local health care systems, sending the death toll—already more than 100,000—much, much higher and forcing new lock downs that will further threaten people’s livelihoods.

Now, in response to a police killing of an unarmed black man (George Floyd) on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota (USA), along with a number of other recent killings around the country, escalating, sometimes violent, protests have been spreading across the U.S. and also internationally.  While these protests might have happened without COVID-19, they are likely worsened by COVID-19 as people had already been despondent and desperate and many were near a “breaking point.”  All it took was a trigger—provided by Floyd’s death—to light the flame of anger and violence.

Many of these protests are the polar opposite of social distancing, as singing, chanting, yelling people are packed shoulder-to-shoulder in tight areas in many locations across the country and the world.  If the need for social distancing is, indeed, important for slowing the pandemic, these behaviors seem likely to do the opposite. 

We are faced with what systems scholars call a "positive feedback system." ...Now our key question seems to be how to escape this destructive spiral.

So we are faced with what systems scholars call a "positive feedback system."  In this case, "positive" does not mean good, it simply means that an increase in one thing leads to an increase in another, which increases the first, in an ever-escalating spiral.  So the stress and tensions caused by COVID-19 likely exacerbated the tensions felt by the several recent racial incidents, and the response to that stress is likely to exacerbate the pandemic, which will add to the stress...and so it might go..round and round, making everything worse. This spiral is, of course, also being intensified by the outrage underlying the protests and the resistance that protesters have encountered.  Now our key question seems to be how to escape this destructive spiral.

We are starting a new set of posts, pulling together key insights from the BI Knowledge Base, other things we have been reading, contributions from colleagues, and our own thoughts, about the intersection of intractable conflict, COVID and the growing civil unrest that is spreading in the U.S. and beyond.  Once again, we invite comments and other essays contributing to this series.

We are starting with posts relating to three basic questions:

  1. What happened/what is happening? 
  2. Why did these things happen?
  3. What can be done to make the situation better?

(Numbers 2 and 3 will turn into links as soon as content is posted relating to each one.)