Latin America sees largest decline in peacefulness as COVID-19 poses further threat

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A scene from a protest against the lack of government assistance during a general quarantine imposed due to a surge of COVID-19 cases in Santiago, Chile. Photo by: Ivan Alvarado / Reuters

WASHINGTON — South America is the region of the world where peace deteriorated most last year, followed by Central America and the Caribbean, according to the “Global Peace Index 2020” report, with peacefulness expected to drop globally as a result of COVID-19.

The index, an annual examination of peacefulness produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, ranks 163 countries using 23 qualitative and quantitative indicators of peace in three domains: safety and security, ongoing conflict, and militarization. The organization also produced a brief examining the impact that the coronavirus will have on peace, predicting that most indicators are likely to worsen as the pandemic affects nearly all aspects of life.

Q&A: Don't forget to promote peace during pandemic, warns g7+ representative

Lockdowns and border closures could affect current peace-building initiatives, says Habib Mayar of the g7+, an organization of fragile and conflict-affected states.

“The world lacks a credible approach to deal with this crisis,” the COVID-19 analysis found. “The impact is likely to sharpen the focus on other socio-economic factors that have been brewing, such as the growing inequality in wealth, deteriorating labour conditions in developed countries and increasing alienation with the political system.”

The 2020 index attributes South America’s drop in peacefulness to the militarization and safety and security metrics, whereas Central America and the Caribbean’s drop was caused by a rise in ongoing conflict.

While Honduras was one of the five most improved countries in the world, driven by “particularly noticeable improvements” in political terror and deaths from internal conflict, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Chile were among the five most deteriorated. Nicaragua saw Central America’s biggest decrease in peace, due to deaths from internal conflict, the likelihood of violent crime, and a worsening of political terror. In 2019, an estimated 70,000 people fled Nicaragua as President Daniel Ortega targeted political opponents and widespread protests threatened the country’s economy.

“The pandemic will undo many years of socio-economic development for several countries ... potentially aggravating unrest and conflict.”

— The Institute for Economics and Peace’s “COVID-19 and Peace” report

Venezuela is the least peaceful country in South America and among the 15 least peaceful in the world. Its ranking deteriorated by 7.5% in the last year as political and civil unrest continued. The country’s economic collapse has driven millions of Venezuelans into neighboring Colombia and beyond, fleeing a country that lacks access to basic supplies and health care. Venezuela also has a high number of its citizens displaced within its borders, which further contributed to the nation’s ranking.

Globally, 81 countries became more peaceful, while 80 countries became less so. The average country saw a .34% drop in peacefulness, and 2019 marked the ninth deterioration in peace measured in the last 12 years of the index’s existence. Europe remains the most peaceful region in the world, while the Middle East and North Africa region is the least peaceful. Afghanistan is the least peaceful country in the world.

The institute’s COVID-19 analysis called the pandemic “one of the most serious crises in recent history,” saying that society and economies will be permanently changed.

“Responsiveness and adaptability will determine which countries perform best through this period,” the analysis said. “The pandemic will undo many years of socio-economic development for several countries, exacerbating humanitarian crises and potentially aggravating unrest and conflict.”

Even before the pandemic, the number and type of global conflicts continued to change, said Steve Killelea, executive chairman at the Institute for Economics and Peace, during an online launch event for the index. Future editions of the index will spend more time examining internal conflict and its underlying dynamics, he said.

“The total number of conflicts … just keeps going up,” Killelea said of the global landscape. “The intensity of those conflicts is increasing.”

About the author

  • Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh has reported from more than 10 countries and is currently based in Washington, D.C. Her coverage focuses on Latin America; U.S. foreign assistance policy; fragile states; food systems and nutrition; and refugees and migration. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa worked at McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She was a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.