Indigenous peoples in the Amazon in Brazil set up roadblocks to prevent outsiders from accessing their villages. They are afraid of becoming infected with the coronavirus.

How the corona crisis contributes to new types of crime

Attacks on health personnel and breaches of infection control laws are dangerous consequences of the way we talk about the pandemic, according to a Norwegian researcher studying media coverage in Latin America.

“New forms of crime have emerged during the corona crisis,” says Sveinung Sandberg, professor of criminology at the University of Oslo.

He and a Mexican colleague have studied the media coverage of crimes related to the crisis in Latin America.

The region has been hard hit by the virus outbreak. Several places have implemented a curfew and a mandatory face mask order.

The new crime is inspired by the situation – ranging from blocking roads because people are afraid of infection to refusing to wear face coverings.

Sandberg calls it corona crime.

“People who don’t normally exhibit criminal behaviour are breaking the law,” he says.

Taking matters into their own hands

The most common messages we hear concerning the pandemic are that we should keep our distance from each other and wash our hands frequently.

"Authorities, health experts and the media convey the same story, which means that the message has a strong impact," says Sandberg.

Some people take the message so seriously that they deny people access to their village. They are taking matters into their own hands because they believe the authorities are not doing enough.

“It’s good to point out how serious the crisis is. But we have to be careful about painting the picture that this is the end of the world, because then people will go into a state of panic and do more damage,” says sociologist Sveinung Sandberg.

In Chile, Mexico, Brazil and Columbia, ordinary residents have blocked roads to prevent the spread of infection.

In Honduras, people did not even want deceased corona victims to be buried in a nearby cemetery.

“These reactions arise when people’s experience is that others are not taking enough infection precautions,” Sandberg says.

Bleach thrown at doctor

A number of attacks on healthcare professionals working with corona patients have also occurred. A nurse in Argentina was hit in the face and sprayed with disinfectant because she worked in a nursing home, according to the newspaper Detrás de La Noticia.

In Mexico, a man sprayed bleach on a doctor's clothes in an attempt to "disinfect" him, Mexico News Daily reports. Elsewhere in the country, 150 people threatened to burn down a hospital if it treated corona patients, according to the same newspaper.

“People’s actions are very fear-driven. Their logic is that healthcare professionals are more prone to infection than others. They try to punish them to prevent them from spreading infection,” says Sandberg.

This is a counterview of the image many people have of health professionals as heroes.

And the kinds of images we paint of the corona crisis can directly affect how people act, the sociologist believes.

People either support the prevailing message or come up with alternative explanations. Both sides are breaking the law because they believe the authorities are going too far or not far enough.

Apocalyptic tales

“Apocalyptic stories can have far-reaching effects,” says Sandberg.

“It’s good to point out how serious the crisis is. But we have to be careful about painting the picture that this is the end of the world, because then people will go into a state of panic and do more damage,” he says.

It’s a difficult balancing act, he admits, because the seriousness of the message also leads to people following the authorities' advice. Sandberg believes the solution lies in providing objective and factual information.

“I don’t know if people would have taken the virus seriously if the authorities hadn’t emphasized the gravity of it,” says political scientist Benedicte Bull.

Bull is a professor at the University of Oslo and has done research on Latin America for many years.

Study gives more nuanced picture

Corona crime in the region is nothing new for Bull, who is following the situation in Latin America. Recent months have seen many newspaper articles and reports on the topic.

“The researchers systematize the information and offer a more nuanced picture of crime trends during the pandemic. I think it’s an excellent article,” says Bull. She has read the scientific article about the findings, which have not yet been published.

However, she is not familiar with the narrative criminology method used by the researchers. It involves looking at how representations of a situation can both inspire crime and shape the crime itself. Sandberg was involved in developing the method.

Poor overview of crime trends

The researchers searched through thousands of Spanish and English newspaper articles online that dealt with COVID-19 and crime from January to June this year. They thoroughly reviewed approximately 200 of the articles.

Criminal organizations have partially taken over the role of the state during the corona crisis. “I think this tactic can change people’s understanding of who protected them and gave them food,” says political scientist Benedicte Bull.

This is not a tally of events, but an attempt to understand the different types of crime that are occurring in the wake of the crisis.

“Using media reports from Latin America is a highly uncertain method, because what is reported and what isn’t varies so much,” Bull says.

At the same time, she thinks this approach can be forgiven in a situation where no one has a complete overview of the crime trends.

What about crime that isn’t directly related to the crisis?

Some places have experienced less crime. In El Salvador, for example, fewer homicides than usual have been committed this year, but they have been in decline for several years. The reason for the trend is uncertain, according to a report by the foundation Insight Crime.

Believe authorities want to kill the population

On the other side of the official picture of the crisis are people who don’t believe the authorities' explanations.

Some individuals refuse to believe that the coronavirus is dangerous and that we need to take measures to protect ourselves. This has led to large demonstrations where people do not keep their distance and thus break the law.

Another variant is conspiracy theories that a dangerous disease does exist, but that it is being spread through radiation, for example. This theory has resulted in a series of attacks on mobile phone masts, also in Europe.

“Some people believe the virus was invented to kill the population,” Sandberg says.

Deep divisions

And that viewpoint may not be as strange as it sounds, the researcher believes. Many residents of some Latin American countries have a deep distrust of the authorities, partly based on bad experiences, along with widespread corruption and high levels of poverty.

“One of the characteristics of Latin American countries is a strong polarization. They lack common stories about their society,” says Bull.

“Deep divisions exist elsewhere as well, for example in the USA. But the differences between rich and poor in Latin America are huge, and this creates fertile ground for division,” she says.

Authorities in Guatemala and El Salvador have used the crisis to control the population and crack down on the opposition. In Mexico, a man was killed by the police for not wearing a face mask.

Downplaying the crisis

In some countries, however, authorities are downplaying the pandemic. Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro, who himself was infected with the coronavirus, believes that there is no point in social distancing.

According to Bull, the pandemic is creating even sharper societal divisions. “I think this is a scary situation that could negatively affect our ability to move forward afterwards.

“How well the authorities give people the chance to survive also makes a difference. If people just get orders and no support, I think we could see an increase in aggression”, she says.

In Peru, many street vendors are breaking the corona rules to provide income and food for their families, writes NRK broadcasting.

People in El Salvador's capital, San Salvador, demonstrated against the closure of state aid offices in May. The corona crisis has worsened the economy and created unrest.

Exploiting the situation

In the eyes of some, the crisis justifies actions that would not otherwise be accepted.

We see crimes that typically take place in the wake of chaos, like using the opportunity to steal.

“The perpetrators might have done the deed anyway, but they say that the pandemic makes it okay. We know that people have called for looting on social media due to the crisis. They play on the differences for rich and poor in the pandemic and say that during the economic crisis ‘we’re entitled to take what we need,’” says Sandberg.

Established criminal organizations also take their cut to expand their business. They patrol the streets under the guise of ensuring that the population complies with the curfew.

“The drug cartels in Mexico have taken on the role of protecting the population. They also hand out food,” Sandberg says.

In some places, paramilitary groups have taken over responsibility for enforcing infection control laws.

Crime map is changing

Sandberg believes the criminals are trying to pander to the public to make a better impression on them. And while they do, they secure even more control over those areas.

“I think this tactic can change people’s understanding of who protected them and gave them food,” Bull says.

“But most people are probably first and foremost still afraid of these gangs.”

In several places, criminal gangs and cartels had already taken over parts of the state's role before the crisis, Bull explains. They operate like law enforcement and demand protection money.

Now that companies are losing revenue, she has heard that debt collectors are giving payment deferrals.

Bull fears a possible concentration of power in some criminal organizations. But for now, it's highly uncertain how the crisis is changing the criminal map.

“Things could go either way. They could gain such strong control that they manage to keep other crime in check, or desperation and social disintegration could contribute to more crime,” she says.

Warns about corona crime in Norway

Violations of laws and regulations are occurring in many countries during the crisis.

When Norway shut down in March, the police reported fewer incidents of a number of offense types. This does not necessarily indicate an actual decline in crime.

Norway has had its share of corona crime, such as fraudulent sales of pirated medicines and infection control equipment, according to the Norwegian Police Association.

If the crisis ramps up several notches, Sandberg warns that assaults and roadblocks could also happen in Norway.

“There’s a danger that attacks on people who are seen as spreaders of infection could occur or that people will isolate themselves on their own using illegal means,” he says.

Bull thinks these scenarios are unlikely. “We’re better off financially in Norway, and we have a completely different level of trust in others,” she says.

“Our reality is a far cry from one in which people put more trust in a criminal organization than the police. Most people trust the Norwegian health service and the authorities, so they don’t resort to taking the law into their own hands.”

Translated by: Ingrid P. Nuse


Sveinung Sandberg and Gustavo Fondevila: Corona Crimes - How pandemic narratives change criminal landscapes. Not published.


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