Stay Updated on Developing Stories

The coronavirus pandemic is an opportunity for organized crime in Asia

Editor's Note: (Jeremy Douglas is the Regional Representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. He can be followed on Twitter @jdouglasSEA. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. View more opinion articles on CNN.)

(CNN) To say the global novel coronavirus pandemic is causing chaos and affecting lives in real and tangible ways is certainly no understatement.

But one impact that has not received significant attention is how its spread is hurting the efforts of governments to combat transnational organized crime and trafficking -- especially in Asia, where the outbreak began.

The virus and the strong measures required to combat its spread are challenging the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime's (UNODC) ability to bring Asia's law enforcement and justice authorities together to share information and intelligence, and to plan and conduct joint operations.

Though the movement of people and goods across borders has slowed, international and cross-border cooperation is more necessary than ever given the presence of multi-billion dollar trafficking syndicates in the region.

Practical effects

Behind the scenes, Covid-19 has impacted how many governments and the United Nations run on a day-to-day basis, in ways not all appreciate and many are yet to understand.

The six governments of the Mekong -- Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam -- and the UNODC have just had to suspend a long-planned and carefully negotiated joint operation against organized crime and drug traffickers at and along border hotspots of the region.

All face-to-face meetings of intelligence officials have been postponed until further notice, and with the trajectory of the outbreak it may be months before they meet again.

Public security ministers and senior officials are also essentially in lockdown and unsure of what to do next.

Increased screenings

At the same time, many frontline police, border and customs officials are now being tasked with screening people crossing borders for signs of the virus. Very problematically, many have received mixed signals about what they should be doing and how to do it.

The paramilitarized police of Asia operating at key border checkpoints have not been properly trained to take on a pandemic.

And re-prioritizing the focus of largely ill-equipped and poorly trained law enforcement across the region to the pandemic could also hamper other priorities and undermine an already fragile rule of law, including important efforts to take on syndicates.

It is more than likely that traffickers will benefit in significant and tangible ways.

A checkpoint is seen at Thailand's border with Poi Pet, Cambodia.


The fact is that organized crime behavior is predictable, and traffickers will take advantage to smuggle precursors and produce and ship more drugs or other illicit goods while law enforcement is distracted and looking the other way.

They will move quickly and decisively to capitalize. They will not hesitate -- their business is fundamentally built around capitalizing on governance dysfunction and vulnerabilities.

In short, the pandemic is a disaster for ill-prepared law enforcement now struggling to respond, and it is an opportunity for organized crime in Asia. The coronavirus is exposing fatal flaws in public security capacity and response, and the region is likely to suffer as a result.

When the situation settles down and the region gets a handle on the outbreak, the countries of the Mekong, Asia and the UN will need to quickly take stock and restart efforts to cooperate and collaborate, dusting off delayed plans and getting operations back on track.

If they do not, they risk losing further ground to transnational organized crime and traffickers -- something the region cannot afford.