Every once in a while, a troubling news item pops up: someone was murdered. To make things worse, this person often loses their life for the sake of something mundane and casual: a parking spot, for example. Aside from thoughts on the frailty of human life, it begs another question: if there was no such thing as parking spots, would less people have been murdered for their sakes? And it isn’t just parking – it’s arguments (turned into physical altercations) in shops, clubs, inside the home and countless other, mundane human actions that can escalate to murder.
In 2020, a most of the world first became familiar with the COVID-19 pandemic and in most of the world, precautionary measures were taken, either by government decree or private individuals’ actions in lessening social interactions for a variety of reasons. This is true for Israel, the USA, Sweden, Columbia and more; so that, in a way, the pandemic and many governments’ and peoples’ reactions to it make for an interesting case study when inspecting violence and murder. On the one hand, during the pandemic, we don’t leave our homes as often and don’t fight with others as often over parking spots, etc. On the other, we’ve increased the time we spend at home, we spend less time with people outside of our immediate household/family, and increase the amount of thoughts we have of a dark future, lack of financial stability and more, which can also affect the rate of violence and murder.
So what do we know, if at all, about homicide during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Homicide Prior to COVID-19
Before we familiarize ourselves with the facts about murder rates during the COVID-19 pandemic (or at least up to the end of 2020), we better familiarize ourselves with murder rates in different countries during ordinary times. If I were to tell you that, during 2020, 100 people were murdered in Israel, it might sound pretty alarming – a murder almost every 4 days! But during 2018 and 2019, roughly 124 and 145 people were murdered in Israel, respectively – so that 100 murders is actually a significant decline in murder rates.
It is also important to understand how Israel compares to other countries. When comparing between countries, it’s common to use homicide rates relative to population size: 100 murders per year is “usual” in Israel (and even lower than usual), compared to other countries. 100 murders per year in the United States (whose population is roughly 35 times the size of Israel’s) is an inconceivably-low number. In the following graph, you can gauge the homicide rates in Israel and several other countries, which we will discuss here:
Mexico, Columbia and Peru
Mexico, Columbia and Peru are very violent countries, whether we consider murder alone (as in the graph below) or whether we consider “generally violent causes of death” (or “unnatural” ones), such as traffic accidents. This data has some advantages: since homicide constitutes such a high share of all deaths causes in these countries (and surely the death of young individuals), they keep track of and publish data on death caused by murder or other violent causes¹ regularly. Thus, we already have detailed information on homicides throughout 2020 that we can compare to that from 2019:
In Mexico, homicide rates went down just a little bit (-1.5%) during the COVID-19 pandemic; In Columbia, rates lessened somewhat (-8%) and in Peru, rates went down significantly (-25%). Recall that these are very violent countries, who monitor homicide data religiously? Then you must know that the COVID-19 pandemic did not hit these countries on January 1st, 2020, and most certainly did not go away on December 31st, 2020, either. These countries (thankfully?) monitor and publish homicides data on a weekly, or at least monthly basis and, in that kind of resolution, we can see that the downward drop in murder rates begins with the arrival of the pandemic quarantines and other limitations, and not beforehand. Homicides even shoot back up to their previous level when these limitations are removed.²
France, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands
On the other end, we have the far safer European countries – even when compared to Israel and especially when compared to Latin America. Violence and murder are much smaller problems in these countries and thus, they only publish data on it on a yearly basis.
Here, the story is more complex, with no one obvious result. In Germany, homicide rates went up (+25%); in France, rates went down just a bit (-2%); in Sweden, rates went up (+10%) and in the Netherlands, down (-2%). Generally-speaking, it looks like the change in nonviolent countries isn’t very significant, and may well be the natural change with occurs between different years, with no relation to pandemics or quarantines.³ Another explanation may be that, in these countries, a relatively-large portion of murder takes place within the family (i.e. femicide). It’s not as though women aren’t murdered in very violent countries, but the rates are incomparable. In Columbia, for every murdered woman, there are 10 murdered men. In Sweden, this ratio drops down to “only” 4 times more. In the very violent countries, a large portion of violence originates in conflicts within and between gangs, drug cartels, crime families, etc. – a type of violence that barely exists in the European countries.
The United States
The US is probably the most interesting case study here. Firstly: it’s a huge country, both in its physical size and the size of its population. When it comes to violence rates, it’s situated exactly in the middle between the very violent and very peaceful countries. The US also has a wonderfully-organized system of monitoring and collecting data on crime and murder. On top of that, every large city or state within the US has a nearly-independent police force, so that their policing policies as well as their COVID-19 policies vary between different US states. Take California vs. Florida as an example.
If we inspect the US as a general, single entity, we see that homicide rates have gone up by 33%(!) in 2020. This is undoubtedly an unusual change. At least since 1981, the biggest yearly change was an uptick of 11% between 2014 and 2015.
However, if we look at specific cities, we can see that in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the number of homicides has gone up from 46 to 79 (+72%). In Los Angeles, California it went up from 258 to 351 (+6%). In Baltimore, Maryland, the numbers actually went down a bit, from 342 to 333 (-3%). In New York City, homicides went up from 319 to 462 (+45%); in Miami, from 241 to 272 (+13%) and, In Chicago, from 519 to 777 (+33%). These are quite alarming spikes, but we must remember that, for some US cities, these are within the “usual” homicide rates. For example, between 2015 to 2016, the number of homicides in Chicago went up from 495 to 795 – an uptick of roughly 37%.⁴
Why have homicides in the US spiked so high, while going down (or, at least, mostly unchanged) in far more violent countries? And why, in less-violent countries, have the rates only gone through very slight changes, be they upwards or downwards? This will surely be the subject of many future studies, but the final answer will probably combine general anxiety following the pandemic (even before quarantines and lockdowns), which led many Americans to purchase lots of firearms, and a vacuum of law and order between police forces and elected officials, who found themselves struggling when faced with accusations of police brutality.⁵
And what about Israel? What happened here in 2020?
We have filed a Freedom of Information request with the Israeli police and have received data pertaining to murder rates in Israel during 2020: 147 murders occurred in Israel in that year, compared to 145 in 2019. The numbers are virtually identical, if not a very slight downward tick of 0.5%. The following figure presents murder rates in Israel between 2017 and 2020, according to data provided by Israeli police:
Essentially, if we did not know for a fact that 2020 was the year of the plague, lockdowns and all that ensued, it would have been hard to distinguish 2020 homicide rates in many countries and in many others, the effect seems to be completely counter-intuitive, with significant reductions in homicides, especially in countries where homicides are a large social issue.
An important outlier is the United States, where 2020 saw a large upwards spike in homicide rates generally and in many cities all across the country. This suggests that US homicides cannot be explained by COVID and/or lockdowns only, but has to take into account its multitude of socio-economic properties and their interaction with COVID and/or lockdowns.
In the future, when 2021 data on homicides becomes available, we will revisit this issue again and take a longer-term view. Could it be that even in countries where homicides decreased, it was only a temporary fluctuation, and the longer-term number of homicides remains the same? Is the rise in the US suggestive of a new upward trend? Be sure to follow us to find out.
¹ In Columbia, murder made up 43% of deaths by violent causes in 2019, and 47% of deaths by violent causes in 2020.
³ In Sweden, the number of murders ticked upwards by 29% between 2014 to 2015 and, in Germany, by 49% between 2015 and 2016.
⁴ Two main sources for crime data in the US: the first is the quarterly, interactive FBI report found here: https://crime-data-explorer.fr.cloud.gov/ and the second is the data-collecting work of analyst Jeffrey Asher, who collects data from periodical reports of different police forces within the US: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1Z9b5mIwztAwmEHJW7Q5DHMjS14-Rs7XIXOt33Al_rDw/edit#gid=1757262194 . He’s worth following on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Crimealytics
⁶ Sources for murder rates in different countries in 2019 and 2020: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1_ak2AtIsA20lwuy6FbcKsLEHbMymkF4g/view