What Are the Global Risks to Watch in 2021 (and Year 2 of the Pandemic)?

By Dr Maha Hosain Aziz

It feels like the new year has just started — today we hit the one year mark in the global pandemic. Since January, more Covid-19 strains have surfaced in places like Brazil, Japan, New York and Finland; chronic risks also persist like proxy wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria; the growing global debt crisis; US-China competition; the North Korean threat; and so on. These are factors that pose a recurring threat to our stability — that’s global risk in a nutshell. But what else should we be concerned about as we inch closer to a post-pandemic world? Here are a few risks to watch for in 2021, based on the fifth annual joint project with my NYU graduate students and crowdsourced consultancy Wikistrat where I’m a lead analyst:

Global Trends

1) A Leaderless World in a Post-Trump Era

America is back — at least this is what US President Joe Biden keeps telling us. Yes, it’s positive to see that the US has rejoined the WHO and the Paris Accords; and many world leaders are relieved about a post-Trump era. But does that mean it is necessarily a US-led world again? A lot has changed in the past four years — and especially the last year. For most countries, 2021 will be devoted to responding to domestic Covid-19 concerns: securing enough vaccines, putting people back to work and so on. Global alliances will more likely be driven by Covid-19 diplomacy; last year countries like China, Turkey, South Korea, India and Cuba took the lead on masks, while this year the focus is vaccine diplomacy. So if you’re looking for clarity on who’s in charge in a post-Trump era, you probably won’t find it this year.

2) Another Angry Year for the Citizen Protester, Leading to a Global Spring?

Yes, we are saying this for the third year in a row. Citizen protests continue to challenge governments about political, economic and social issues. 2019 felt like the angriest year yet for the citizen protester, with movements against tax hikes in France, corruption in Bolivia, a Whatsapp tax in Lebanon and so on. But in 2020, even in the midst of a global pandemic, citizens pushed back against their leaders, partly due to frustration with Covid-19 measures in places like the UK, Iraq, India and Venezuela. This trend will likely persist in 2021, as many grow tired of second (or third) lockdowns, mask mandates, vaccine delays, a surge in inequality, a deeper hunger crisis and so on. Did our governments do enough for us — are they doing enough for us now? The greatest challenge for most political leaders will continue to be how to regain the confidence of an increasingly angry citizenry.

3) A Global Mental Health Crisis

Last year was obviously very stressful — we collectively experienced more anxiety and even depression during the lockdown. One year later, we are still affected due to pandemic fatigue and possibly burnout. We wonder when we will get the vaccine, if we will keep our jobs or lose loved ones (if we sadly haven’t already) and if we ourselves will survive. A leading psychiatrist (and now the WHO) suggest the pandemic poses the “greatest threat to our mental health since the second world war.” It has also led to a rise in suicides, e.g. among women in Japan and youth in UK, as well as a greater opioid crisis in places like the US. A WHO study reveals such heightened anxiety could lead to an annual estimated cost of $1 trillion in lost productivity in the global economy. Don’t expect current vaccine progress to resolve these longer term social consequences of the pandemic.

4) A Resurgence in Hate

Pre-pandemic, the world was already suffering from an identity crisis as we struggled with the question: are we globalists or nationalists — do we care about the other? This contributed to a rise in hate speech and extremist activity pretty much everywhere. The first year of the pandemic deepened a lot of these existing social strains; consider the coronavirus-related misinformation campaigns that led to attacks, for instance on Muslims in India and Rohingya refugees in Malaysia. But it also created new strains of hate — a trend which will sadly persist. There has already been a notable rise in attacks on East Asians globally. One US study reveals there has also been a rise in online searches for extremist and white supremacist sources during the pandemic, while another study suggests radicalization has increased globally as extremist groups leverage the frustration many feel. Look for more examples of xenophobia and extremist activity this year.

5) A Cyber Pandemic

Despite years of techlash, the pandemic has reminded us how dependent we are on technology — but also how the potential for a “cyber pandemic” is growing. First, cyber threats have been on the rise with a 400% increase from pre-pandemic levels. In 2021, Russian hackers have already attacked French and US targets, while Chinese hackers are accused of targeting Microsoft and India’s power systems. Second, digital inequality has become even more obvious since the lockdown; despite the UN declaring internet access a human right in 2011, the penetration rate is still only 19% in some developing countries. Third, Internet shutdowns by government persist — in 2020, 29 governments did this 155 times, costing the global economy $4.01 billion. 2021 has already seen examples of this in places like India, Myanmar, Uganda and Iran. Many other risks are surfacing without regulation of our digital space. Could we be on the road to a cyber pandemic?

Bonus Global Risk

Yes, the US has rejoined the Paris Agreement to help fight climate change. But is it enough? Last month, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said this is a “make or break year,” while naturalist Sir David Attenborough warned the UN Security Council, “no matter what we do now, it’s too late to avoid climate change.” What can we do differently during year two of the pandemic to tackle the climate crisis?

Countries or Regions to Watch

6) US: A Renewed Domestic Legitimacy Crisis

President Biden is showing the world that government can work, as he gives new life to the vaccine program and pushes through with the $1.9 trillion relief bill. But expect for him to keep facing challenges to his legitimacy from Trump supporters who still don’t accept his election victory, domestic extremists threatening more attacks (e.g. at the State of the Union address) and anti-maskers, especially in states that have loosened restrictions (e.g. Texas).

7) EU: A Deeper Identity Crisis

The EU is at a crossroads. The bloc’s leading voice, Germany’s Angela Merkel, is on her way out with no clear successor (sorry, Macron). The bloc’s vaccine program is lacking (especially compared to the UK). Some member countries (e.g. Italy) and aspiring members (e.g. Serbia) are still angry about being “abandoned” by the EU during the pandemic, instead receiving support from China. Will this deepen the EU’s identity crisis (and lead to more member exits?)

8) Myanmar: A Burmese Spring?

Myanmar’s military has killed 54 citizens since the Feb 1 coup that led to the arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi and fatal torture of her allies. But pro-democracy citizens (including protesting youth and striking trade unions) are not stopping their demonstrations, using VPNs to overcome Internet clampdowns. More violence lies ahead (especially against the Rohingya). US sanctions are helpful, but don’t expect a coup reversal (note: the military recently recruited a lobby firm to promote its image globally.)

9) Lebanon: A Failed State?

Lebanon has already been through so much in the last year: a political legitimacy crisis, blackouts, debt crisis, a major port explosion, soaring poverty, severe economic crisis (even the military is facing hardship); Covid-19 has exacerbated all of this, as citizen protests persist. Can the state reclaim legitimacy? Until it does, it won’t be able to implement much-needed reforms. It’s hard to see a silver lining in the near term (except that the Lebanese are clearly very resilient).

10) Ethiopia: A Civil War Becomes More Regional

Ethiopia is headed for more violence (plus ethnic cleansing, near-starvation and rapes) in the Tigray region, where the Tigray People’s Liberation Front are clashing with the Ethiopian military (and forces from new ally Eritrea and Somalia). It’s creating a refugee crisis — over 60,000 Ethiopians have already fled to Sudan as the risk of a border war looms. Hard to see a resolution on this without national dialogue or foreign intervention, neither of which seem likely soon.

Bonus Country/Region Risk

Latin America appears to be the hardest hit by Covid-19; though China and Russia are sending vaccines, it’s still unclear if this will stop the variants. It’s generating more citizen unrest, particularly in Paraguay and Argentina. Brazil stands out as the worst case, however, posing a threat to the region. President Jair Bolsanoro continues to do everything he can to not directly tackle the virus or variants, even allowing hospitals to run out of oxygen for patients.

Lastly, what are the shock events that could hinder stability? Well, all bets are off in our pandemic life. It could be anything anything from vaccines that turn out to be fake or new pandemics and world leaders dying from Covid-19 (Eswatini’s prime minister Mandulo Dlamini was the first) to a “potentially hazardous” asteroid hitting Earth (as early as March 21) and, who knows, even more evidence of extraterrestrial life on Earth?

What about you, Reader — what global risk are you most concerned about in 2021 as we start year two of the pandemic?

NYU Professor and WEF Risk Expert Dr Maha Hosain Aziz is the author of two books on global risk. A Global Spring: Navigating a Post-Pandemic World is out on Amazon in spring and can be pre-ordered here; 50% of her profits will be going to the WHO’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The prequel, award-winning Future World Order, hit the Top 15 bestsellers list on Amazon last month; 15% of profits go to Syrian refugee youth in Jordan’s Za’atari camp via the Abid Aziz Fund at charity Peace and Sport.

NYU Professor, Author & Cartoonist in Global Risk & Prediction | Author of FUTURE WORLD ORDER (2020) and 2021 Sequel A GLOBAL SPRING (50% profits to the WHO)

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