Will COVID-19 increase conflict?

April 1, 2020
Written by Dom Hunt

Amid calls for a global ceasefire during the COVID-19 outbreak, Concern’s Humanitarian Policy Advisor Dom Hunt discusses the impact of the epidemic on conflict and whether it could fuel increased violence

Cease fire

Last week, Secretary-General of the United Nations António Guterres called for a global ceasefire so that humanity could collectively address the COVID-19 pandemic. He did this because he realizes — like we do — that the outbreak could exacerbate existing divisions, or contribute to creating new conflicts.

Conflict is the single biggest driver of humanitarian crisis today. Insecurity seriously hampers effective humanitarian responses, including to the COVID-19 pandemic, which will cost additional lives.

The pandemic is already having a significant impact on the global economy, and it may yet devastate an already weakened global economy – causing increased unemployment, decreasing consumption, and collapsing supply chains. A serious global economic recession lasting well beyond the immediate impacts of the virus looks inevitable.

Rising tensions

The people who will be disproportionately impacted economically by isolation or lockdown strategies are, inevitably, the poor.

Those who live precariously will be increasingly unlikely to make ends meet. In countries without social security systems, this can be catastrophic. Of this group, the urban poor are probably the most vulnerable, as they are more reliant on a cash economy than the rural poor. Additionally, in many urban areas and refugee/displacement camps, social distancing is largely impossible. With water, soap and healthcare in short supply, the rate of transmission may be very high and many health systems will be inadequate to meet the surge in need.

“Too little; too late; too strict.”

There is a lot of fear and panic surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and, in many areas of the world where conditions are insecure and precarious, this pressure is adding to an already existing burden of fear and stress. As poor people try to circumvent isolation measures, enforcement may become stricter, leading to civil disorder – as has been seen recently in a number of countries.
Too little; too late; too strict. In many cases, the COVID-19 outbreak has seen the military back on the streets; fines and beatings; accusations of politicians taking advantage of the situation for their own political gains and frustration at the erosion of public services and safety nets by years of austerity measures.

Will this fuel conflict?

Urban areas are often strongholds for the opposition and gangs and as a result, popular uprisings normally start here. Large numbers of frightened, urbanized and vulnerable people, connected through social media, can mobilize against oppression very rapidly, or can be manipulated by politicians for their own ends.

Isolationist and nationalist politics can pit nation states against each other, especially as some leaders engage in racializing the virus.

“As was seen in DRC during the recent Ebola crisis, conflict makes the management of epidemics significantly more dangerous and challenging.”

A rise in conflict resulting from the economic and political impacts of COVID-19 is highly likely.

In countries already dealing with past or present conflict, or where there is a  high potential for conflict (which is true of most of the countries in which Concern works), the government’s ability to manage public health crises is already compromised. As was seen in DRC during the recent Ebola crisis, conflict makes the management of epidemics significantly more dangerous and challenging.

Inevitably, humanitarian needs will increase as a result of COVID-19, but funding to the humanitarian sector may well go down at the same time. Before the pandemic was declared, humanitarian funding only covered about 50% of proposed life-saving programs in conflict contexts. Compensatory budget measures may well divert money from overseas humanitarian aid into domestic responses; and existing humanitarian aid budgets may also be re-assigned to COVID-19 responses, away from other critical, life-saving work that will become more important in the coming weeks and months. This cannot happen.

Coming together

We are only as strong as the weakest health system. Therefore if we are to make progress towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, the global recovery must be more inclusive and we must recover better than efforts made the 2008 financial crisis.

“Collapsing economies and conflict in other countries will inevitably affect us all.”

Conflict drivers need to be addressed by all as a matter of urgency. The building blocks for the revitalization of the global economy must be put in place by national and international leadership as soon as possible, targeted towards the extreme poor in countries already dealing with conflict dynamics. For those donor countries facing inwards and trying to address the pandemic within their own countries, there is a simple message: collapsing economies and conflict in other countries will inevitably affect us all.

Now is the time, more than ever, for the global community to come together, and not to isolate or only think about domestic priorities. At the very least, all countries should step up to the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire, especially in places like Syria and Yemen, and contribute to the UN’s initial $2 billion appeal to address the humanitarian consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To this end, we are backing the #globalceasefire campaign, an initiative of more than 190 NGOs and civil society actors supporting the General-Secretary’s call for every country to put their differences aside and collectively address the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19: Concern’s response

The COVID-19 pandemic is poised to have a catastrophic impact on the world’s poorest communities. Drawing on our long experience helping to control outbreaks like Ebola, we’re training and equipping teams across 23 countries to respond, and providing the most vulnerable communities with the resources they need to survive. Every context is different so we’ll respond with what’s needed most, including:

  • Providing personal protective equipment (PPE) to health workers
  • Creating handwashing stations, distributing hygiene supplies, and providing other sanitation services to help prevent the spread
  • Ensuring communities get accurate and life-saving health information through print, radio, and text message campaigns
  • Supporting and training health facility staff
  • Providing cash transfers and livelihood and education support

We’re able to respond with such quickness and agility because of your committed support. It is the essential resource of our work. You can empower even more work by donating to our COVID-19 response.

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