When governments are unable or unwilling to fulfill the social contract, radical groups may step in to provide needed social welfare services.
Despite assurances that this is the best time in history to be alive, bad things still happen. Economies based on capitalism run in predictable cycles, and the inevitable downturns are naturally harder on the “essential workers” than they are on those who capture a disproportionately large share of the benefits. In places like Gaza or Brazil’s favelas, hard times are the norm. Black swan events, like the coronavirus pandemic, add an extra layer of panic and uncertainty wherever they occur. Yet all too often, government assistance is slow, insufficient, nonexistent, or even counterproductive, just when people need it the most. Ever wonder why outlaw groups gain a foothold among the desperate? Perhaps it’s because they serve as social welfare organizations when the social contract is bankrupt.
Radical groups and militants have served as social welfare providers for generations.
During the Great Depression, mobster Al Capone opened a soup kitchen that served three meals a day to thousands of Chicago’s unemployed.
In 1969, the Black Panthers provided free hot breakfasts for children, bags of groceries for hungry families, medical clinics, public safety, and other social welfare programs.
The Young Lords, a Latinx gang in the South Bronx, took over portions of a New York hospital in 1970 in order to help their community overcome addictions and heal.
In 2018, Thomaz Viera Gomez, a Brazilian drug boss better known as 2N, kidnapped two nurses and stole medical supplies in order to vaccinate residents of the Rio de Janeiro slums against yellow fever. Two hours later, after the nurses finished, he returned them safely to their health center.
All of these faced retaliation as enemies of the State, yet they were there for their people when the State was not.
Now, with COVID-19 spanning the globe and many governments unable, unwilling, or ineffective at holding up their end of the bargain, independent groups otherwise known for crime or terror are still stepping up to fill social welfare functions in their communities.
In Brazil’s favelas, residents must fend for themselves as President Bolsonaro ignores the advice of his health officials and orders people out of isolation and back to work (sound familiar?). While poor Brazilians cooperate with each other to make sure neighbors are fed and supplied with hygiene items, gangs have stepped up to enforce curfews and social distancing in their territories.
The head of Hamas, Yahya Sinwar, demanded that Israel allow ventilators past the blockade to treat Palestinians sick with COVID-19. Hoping to avoid viral spread that would slice through one of the world’s most densely populated areas, he threatened to take the ventilators by force if necessary. Hamas has also opened quarantine facilities in clinics and hotels to isolate infected people, and shut down gathering places like cafés and mosques.
In El Salvador, where people are more afraid of the gangs than of the police, homicides are down because fewer people are on the streets. The gangs are enforcing quarantine. Mexican gangs in Tamaulipas and Michoacan are dispensing food and supplies to residents of those states.
Hezbollah mobilized thousands of doctors, nurses, and paramedics in Lebanon to treat the virus. As part of their social welfare function, the terror group operates hospitals that are providing free testing and treatment for COVID-19 and renting hotels as quarantine facilities.
In Afghanistan, even the Taliban is educating people about disinfection and fighters are distributing soap and face masks.
Here in the United States, Congress allocated significant funds to rescue businesses and the wealthy from the economic effects of quarantine, with the high-end restaurant chain Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse grabbing $20 million in guaranteed loans out of a $349 billion package meant for small businesses, but which ran out of funds before many truly small businesses received any help. Individual $1200 relief checks meant to tide Americans over were potentially delayed because President Trump wanted to have his own signature printed on them, and federal aid has been denied or delayed for states whose governors who weren’t perceived as properly fawning. Perhaps he craves a semblance of the loyalty earned by drug gangs and terror groups?
Meanwhile, Direct Relief, a charity that provides PPE to poor clinics in places like Haiti and Sudan, is sending medical gear to hospitals in California and New Jersey. Doctors Without Borders, a nonprofit that serves impoverished populations around the world, is now treating COVID-19 patients in New York. Many Americans are unable to reach unemployment offices, let alone file claims. The usual right-wing suspects, from the Proud Boys to Ammon Bundy are organizing protests to end quarantines and get desperate people passing the virus around again. Conditions in the United States may be ripe for independent groups willing to provide social welfare services in the absence of effective responses by the State.
Related: When Satan is the Good Guy