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June 1, 2021

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The next stage of the COVID-19 crisis – “Increased security risks should be a concern for many”

International SOS’ James Wood, Head of Security Solutions, and Natacha Crnjanski, Senior Managing Editor, Medical & Security Assistance Services, provide some insight into the increased security risks that may follow as vaccine rollouts move the COVID-19 pandemic into its next stage.

James Wood, International SOS

Many countries have reported a decrease in crime and other security issues in the past year, predominantly due to the precautionary measures implemented to curb the pandemic. Lockdowns and curfews have understandably had a positive impact on reducing criminal activity in many areas. However, it doesn’t mean that security issues have gone away. There are even some elements of the pandemic response, such as vaccine rollouts, which, while essential to beating the pandemic, are a highly emotive subject in many locations.

As some countries and locations start to return to business and travel, organisations and their employees should ensure they have a clear and up-to-date understanding of potential security risks, both domestically and internationally.

There are several security concerns that stand out as priority issues that could pose risks to organisations and individuals.

Social unrest and misinformation

Natacha Crnjanski, International SOS

While not a new phenomenon, the issue of misinformation has become even more prominent in relation to vaccines and the COVID-19 pandemic. From allegations of 5G causing COVID-19 to claims that governments are using vaccination to track citizens, the pandemic has been conducive to rumour and conspiracy theories.

In the short term, misinformation around vaccination programmes can be a contributing factor towards civil unrest; when it stems from the already well-established ‘anti-vax’ movement, but also from those who see mandatory programmes as an intrusion of the state into personal lives. Already, we have seen examples of security incidents linked to anti-vax sentiment, such as when a crude bomb was detonated in March at a drive-through COVID-19 testing centre in Bovenkarspel, in the Netherlands.


READ: Global COVID vaccination programme fraught with security challenges


In addition to these types of attacks, immunisation campaigns could augment pandemic-related social unrest in the coming months. In locations where the vaccine rollout is well underway, protests calling for an accelerated relaxation of containment measures may occur, as populations grapple with pandemic fatigue.

Notable triggers for protests around vaccination campaigns are likely to include:

  • Reports of vaccination being made mandatory: Although mandatory vaccination has not yet been implemented in any country, false rumours of imminent legislation have previously sparked off protests in Brazil, the UK and the US, among others.
  • Imposition of restrictions for non-vaccinated individuals: At least in the early stages of immunisation campaigns, it is possible that some workplaces and entertainment venues will require proof of vaccination to enter. International travel may be ruled by similar restrictions. Anti-vaxx groups, as well as some civil rights advocates, may perceive such measures as an infringement on rights, prompting additional protests.
  • False rumours of fatalities or significant side effects of the vaccine(s): Attempts by social media platforms to restrict the proliferation of such misinformation may be perceived as part of a conspiratorial scheme to suppress the truth.
  • Reports of mass vaccination sites opening in a community: The opening of COVID-19 testing facilities and hospitals has previously sparked off unrest in surrounding communities in several countries, such as in Cote d’Ivoire and the Netherlands. The establishment of mass vaccination sites may similarly elicit objections.

Corruption and political unrest

In addition to specific concerns around vaccination, discontent over governments’ handling of the pandemic is likely to fuel protests, which can pose security issues. Related demonstrations in various locations have already had, for some of them, a significant impact on national governments. For example, protests in January resulted in the resignation of Mongolian Prime Minister Khurelsukh Ukhnaa, while in Brazil, recurrent protests have been held since the beginning of the year over President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration’s management of the pandemic.

Specific triggers which are likely to cause major protests against governments, or even private organisations, include:

  • Inefficient immunisation campaigns: Protests are most likely in countries with growing anti-government sentiment that have also recorded numerous COVID-19 fatalities. For example, Brazil has seen significant demonstrations due to the scale of the crisis in the country.
  • Reports of hoarding of vaccines and palliatives: During protests in Nigeria against police brutality and against the government more generally in October and November 2020, participants stormed government warehouses after reports that state authorities had been hoarding supplies. Further protests over vaccine stocks remain likely, especially in countries where corruption levels are high.
  • Corruption scandals over vaccine contracts and distribution: Countries with high levels of corruption may also see protests in reaction to either reports of unequal distribution of vaccines (for example, state officials being prioritised over front-line workers or vulnerable populations, as was raised during recent protests in Lebanon) or the corrupt allocation of state contracts to organisations in charge of distributing the vaccine. Protests over corrupt practices in awarding contracts during the COVID-19 crisis have already occurred in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Honduras, Kenya and Zimbabwe, among others.

Crime

Last but not least, criminal activity is likely to pose a significant security threat in coming months. Already, the vaccine rollout has captured the attention of many criminal actors such as cybercriminals, scammers, local criminal gangs and transnational criminal organisations. Analysts have identified a significant increase in online domains containing the terms ‘coronavirus’ and ‘vaccine’, many of which will be vectors for malware and phishing attacks.

Additionally, the growth in severe inequality and loss of incomes that has resulted in many cases from the pandemic is likely to fuel a rise in criminal activity, as in some instances vulnerable populations may engage in criminal activity in order to survive. Clear examples of this have been in Colombia where some of the poorer rural population, as well as Venezuelan refugees, have begun to engage in activities such as illicit mining, forestry, drug production, and drug trafficking, all overseen by criminal groups.

The risk that criminal groups pose to supply chains, including the theft of medical cargo, is also likely to increase in the near future. At International SOS, we anticipate this will be a particular issue in Latin America, as securing the vaccine supply chain will be challenging due to the confluence of corrupt local municipal police departments and politicians, and the presence of strong Transnational Criminal Organisations (TCOs). As an example, in October 2020, criminals in Mexico stole thousands of influenza vaccines after the government suggested an imminent scarcity.

In the coming months, increased demand for medical supplies and vaccines may also translate into truck hijackings and thefts– which continue to be the most common tactics in the theft of pharmaceutical products – as well as a growth in facility break-ins. Countries that saw the most significant incidents of pharmaceutical theft in 2019 and 2020 include Brazil, India, Italy (particularly Apulia and Campania regions), Mexico and the US. In relation to the COVID-19 vaccines, it is likely that this trend will remain the same, with even more activity expected in these countries.

While the security issues raised might have taken a back seat to the medical issues so far, organisations should make sure they don’t have blind spots where risk is concerned. Employees need to be equipped to handle related risks with reliable information and appropriate training. Their organisations’ ability to objectively analyse how they deal with these security concerns is key, particularly as they prepare for the recovery phase. Being able to review gaps, drive improvements in organisational responses, and enable decision makers to maintain operational continuity will be critical as they prepare to return to operations, work and travel.

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