The COVID-19 pandemic is a stark reminder of how vulnerable cities in the global South are to devastation by contagion due to poorly managed population density, resource deprivation, and maladministration. However, there is another epidemic that has been harming these cities for much longer: urban violence. The cities of Cape Town and Karachi, both historically plagued by violent crime, provide valuable lessons on the relationship between COVID-19, crime, and violence.
Our cities enable the connectivity necessary for economic growth, but they also create opportunities to destroy it, with dense urban centres vulnerable to both crime and contagion. The 2020 Global Peace Index estimates that the national cost of violence in Pakistan has ranged between 8% and 13% of GDP per annum over the last five years. Meanwhile in South Africa, the same figure is between 10% and 23%. The economic costs of COVID-19 on South Africa and Pakistan, although still being calculated, are set to be significant.
COVID-19 and urban violence in South Africa and Pakistan
Strict lockdowns implemented in a number of countries have led to some surprising outcomes. For example, in the first few weeks of lockdown in South Africa, cities recorded fewer deaths than any other time in recent history. Murder rates decreased by 72%, rape by 87%, and assault by 85%. Carjacking and robbery also reduced by around 80% and 60% respectively. Similarly, in Pakistan, there was a reduction in homicide, kidnappings for ransom, bank robberies, and drug-related crime, in the weeks following the lockdown.
As a result of reduced movement and mobility under lockdown, both coastal cities saw changes in the patterns of urban crime, most notably in four key areas:
- Shifts in policing resources changing criminal opportunities
Although Karachi saw a decline in violent crime, street crime - including muggings, vehicular theft, house robberies, and water theft - remained rampant. This was partly due to police resources shifting away from routine police work, such as patrolling, towards enforcement of lockdowns. Increased socio-economic stresses resulting from the pandemic have also played a role. In Cape Town, increased patrols and roadblocks in high crime areas meant all forms of crime were initially deterred. The police force was supplemented by the military, leading to higher capacity for enforcement, and in some cases, over enforcement.
The lockdown in Karachi also saw an increase in crimes of profiteering, black-marketing, and hoarding of essential goods. While in Cape Town, purchase of alcohol and tobacco became illegal overnight, and failure to comply with all lockdown regulations saw 107,000 cases opened in the first week.
- Gangs and militant groups taking new actions
The lockdowns also affected how criminal gangs and militants operated in both cities. In Cape Town, gangs have seen unprecedented truces, even working side by side to deliver essential food items to the poor. This is similar to Rio (Brazil) where gangs have been the ones enforcing the lockdown in favelas. Furthermore, the blanket ban on alcohol and tobacco in South Africa gave them ‘illicit drug’ status, providing the gangs with an alternative opportunity.
In Karachi, however, the easing of the lockdown saw a return to violence. The paramilitary force, Sindh Rangers, deployed to assist the civilian police in the maintenance of law and order, came under multiple attacks in June. These attacks were claimed by a separatist militant group. Karachi also saw an armed attack on the Pakistan Stock Exchange building by another separatist organisation in the same month. This has collectively raised concerns about a potential return to militant violence in the city following a period of relative calm since the 2013 security operation. Both cases highlight the tendency of organised crime groups to expand their influence and control in governance when the state is overwhelmed.
- Supply of illicit drugs confounded by travel restrictions
Urban crime has also suffered from the restrictions on regional and international travel. The lockdown in Karachi meant that international narcotics trafficking routes saw temporary blocks. These were further supported by significant counter-narcotics operations off the coast. Post-lockdown, however, trafficking and peddling has steadily increased, and in some cases was even facilitated by police.
In Cape Town, business with the Serbian, Chinese, and Nigerian networks to smuggle drugs across borders has been halted, drastically reducing drug sales. Drugs and alcohol are well-known ‘triggers’ for violence, and thus most likely played a significant role in the reduction of homicide in Cape Town. Since the lockdown was eased and the sale of alcohol permitted, a number of trauma and murder cases have emerged.
- Violent crime moving indoors
As in other cities worldwide, there have been significant concerns about increases in domestic violence and assault during the lockdown in Karachi. There is no data currently available to suggest how many women and children are at risk. Nevertheless, the closure of shelters and social welfare helplines across Pakistan during the lockdown has further limited the channels available to women suffering from abuse.
Additionally, the restrictions on movement reduce victims’ ability to call helplines without risk of being overheard. This perhaps explains why provincial helplines in Pakistan witnessed a drop in the number of calls they received in the initial weeks of the lockdown. The situation is similar in Cape Town, where NGOs like Rape Crisis have had to quickly adapt by making online and additional telephonic reporting and counselling services available.
What has COVID-19 taught us about addressing urban crime?
Although lockdowns in Karachi and Cape Town provided temporary respite from urban violence, we cannot rely on reduced interaction between people as a long-term solution. As cities resume daily activity, crime will return. Some are even predicting an increase beyond pre-COVID levels due to aggravated economic hardship. However, there are a few policy takeaways from the trends and patterns identified.
- While city-wide lockdowns were in place, drug-related crimes reduced in frequency. This is due to their links to international trafficking routes, signalling that a cross-country response is needed to control the supply of drugs in urban areas. The allocation of police resources also seems to have an important impact on the types of crime committed.
- Providing criminal gangs with alternative opportunities or motivations can reduce conflict and violence. However, pivotal crises like these also give militant groups the possibility to resume their violent activities. Understanding how and why organised crime groups get involved in governing communities, and how this can be harnessed for good, requires more research and multi-sectoral action.
- Victims of domestic violence and abuse had greater constraints during the lockdowns, with limited access to safe spaces, as well as fewer mechanisms to report. Therefore, more investment is needed in shelters and helplines for women and children. The pandemic also highlighted the challenges associated with recording data on crimes against women, which requires solutions that overcome fear or inability to report.
Collectively, the lessons from Cape Town and Karachi inform us that a public health approach to urban violence is needed. Just as COVID-19 has demanded more investment in healthcare and education that addresses socio-economic disparities in urban areas, so too should the response to urban violence. Allocating resources to these areas can reduce the burden on the police during a crisis, allowing them to focus on response and investigation.
 This accounts only for the direct cost of violence containment. It does not take into account the opportunity costs of money and time spent productively elsewhere, nor the psychological damage that limits individual potential.
 In the first month of the lockdown, Karachi recorded a 37% decrease in homicide compared to the same period in 2019 (according to data provided by the police).
This blog is part of a series curated by the Cities that Work initiative exploring topics on cities and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Read more.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are those of the authors based on their experience and on prior research and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IGC.