Although our screens mostly show news reports with a focus on the immediate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, research on previous major infectious disease outbreaks reveals that there are additional short and long term social, economic, health and political secondary impacts.
The current pandemic will aggravate and possibly create new instances of insecurity that will put to test conflict management efforts and systems. Mindful of early warning and conflict prevention, I identified three key areas that actors must focus their immediate and long term interventions.
Health: In conflict zones, mass movement of populations, overcrowding, lack of access to clean water, poor sanitation, lack of shelter, and poor nutritional status are factors that increase the risk of contracting disease. Collapsed or weakened health systems by mismanagement and foreign sanctions face additional challenges when dealing with an outbreak, as they are unable to efficiently conduct basic services and control programmes such as vaccination and vector control. Research on the 2014 Ebola virus disease outbreak in the highly-affected Forest region of Guinea demonstrates that individuals are less likely to access and attend maternal and child health services due to community mistrust in health-care systems and personnel.
Governance and Stability: The outbreak will further deteriorate already weak relationships between the state and its citizens. Bans on public gatherings and protests might be perceived as or will encourage a political exploitation of the crisis. The Hungarian government submitted legislation to parliament that would “extend the state of crisis indefinitely, and would impose prison sentences of up to 5 years on those hindering measures that are aimed at containing the spread of the virus and on those spreading false information”.
In other areas of the world, the role and response of security forces toward enforcing coercive measures needs to be mindful to pre-existing grievances. For example, the constant abuses of the Nigerian army fuel mistrust and anger in populations and is cited by ex-combatants as motivation for joining the violent Boko Haram insurgency in Northeast Nigeria. Despite a lack of training in policing, the army has been used to maintain order by successive military and civilian governments.
Economy and Social Development: Advanced economies are in a better position to respond to a recession expected to be at least as bad as the 2008 global financial crisis. However, many emerging markets and low-income countries are expected to face significant challenges and an erosion of institutions and public sectors systems. In addition to health, the delivery of education, livelihoods and other critical public services will be hindered, particularly for the elderly, disabled and chronically ill. In conflict afflicted regions, women and children, which form the majority of refugees and internally displaced persons, will be exposed to increased abuse and exploitation. Key actors must prepare and further increase measures of social protection.
However, as the virus poses a major threat to all individuals, there is a prospect for communication and cooperation even between the most unlikely partners. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has shipped supplies of medical equipment to Iran, and Donald Trump has sent a letter to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-Un, expressing his willingness to help with coronavirus.
Questions remain on the impact that COVID-19 will have on the actions of non-state actors in conflict. The Islamic State has issued a travel advisory to its fighters, recommending to avoid Europe, “the land of the epidemic”, and other areas affected by the coronavirus. Will this mean a reduction in attacks? On the one hand, will Islamist insurgent groups capitalise on the immediate reorientation of state priorities and further exploit its absence? On the other hand, will they be able to provide the necessary health measures in order to protect ‘the people’, who remain the lifeblood of any insurgency?
To sum up, COVID-19 is not happening in isolation and is already having an extensive impact across all domains of life. To face this existential threat, it is essential even for warring parties to switch to a cooperation rather than a competition mindset.
This text was originally published on the SCDTP Blog