The next installment of ‘Under Afghan Skies‘ will appear this week, but I’ve also been trying to pull together what information and insight there is on the impact of the pandemic on Syria (more on that soon too). En route, these more general reflections provide some helpful context:
(A) International Crisis Group on Covid-19 and conflict: seven trends to watch is here. This was written late last month, and it’s clearly a rapidly evolving situation, but in brief the trends identified by the ICG are:
(1) The vulnerability of conflict-affected populations
‘The populations of conflict-affected countries – whether those in war or suffering its after-effects – are likely to be especially vulnerable to outbreaks of disease. In many cases, war or prolonged unrest, especially when compounded by mismanagement, corruption or foreign sanctions, have left national health systems profoundly ill-prepared for COVID-19… The areas of active conflict at highest immediate risk of COVID-19 outbreaks may be north-western Syria, around the besieged enclave of Idlib, and Yemen. Both countries have already experienced health crises during their civil wars, with violence impeding the international response to an outbreak of polio in Syria in 2013-2014 and cholera in Yemen from 2016 onward. UN officials have now raised the alarm about COVID-19 infecting the population of Idlib, where a Russian-backed offensive by government forces has systematically targeted hospitals and other medical facilities and led to the displacement of over one million people in the last six months alone. Many people fleeing clashes sleep in fields or under trees, and basic hygiene and social distancing practices are made impossible by the lack of running water or soap as well as cramped living spaces….
Also of concern are the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, where over one million people live in overcrowded conditions, with sanitation facilities and health care services limited to a bare minimum. A government ban on internet and mobile phone services in the camps limits access to vital preventive information, while high levels of malnutrition likely imply that both the refugees and local residents are more susceptible to the disease. Should COVID-19 reach the camps, humanitarian agencies expect it to spread like wildfire, potentially triggering a backlash from Bangladeshis who live in the surrounding areas and are already unnerved by the refugees’ prolonged stay.
In these cases – as for displaced communities in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East, Africa and Asia – there is a risk that IDPs and refugees facing large-scale outbreaks of COVID-19 in the camps where they reside may aim to flee again to safety, leading local populations or authorities to react forcefully to contain them, which creates the potential for escalating violence. States attempting to stop the spread of the disease are likely to view new refugee flows fearfully. Colombia and Brazil, for example, closed their borders with Venezuela after previously taking a relatively generous approach to those fleeing the crisis there, but the pressure to escape worsening poverty and health risks in Venezuela could force rising numbers of migrants to use illegal crossings.’
(2) Damage to international crisis management and conflict resolution mechanisms
‘One reason why refugee and IDP populations are likely to be especially vulnerable to COVID-19 is that the disease could severely weaken the capacity of international institutions to serve conflict-affected areas. WHO and other international officials fear that restrictions associated with the disease will impede humanitarian supply chains. But humanitarian agencies are not the only parts of the multilateral system under pressure due to the pandemic, which is also likely to curb peacemaking.
Travel restrictions have begun to weigh on international mediation efforts. UN envoys working in the Middle East have been blocked from travelling to and within the region due to airport closures. Regional organisations have suspended diplomatic initiatives in areas ranging from the South Caucasus to West Africa, while the envoy of the International Contact Group on Venezuela – a group of European and Latin American states looking for a diplomatic solution to the crisis there – had to cancel an already long-delayed trip to Caracas in early March for COVID-related reasons.
The disease could affect crucial intra-Afghan peace talks planned as a follow-up to the February preliminary agreement between the U.S. and the Taliban, at least reducing the number of those who can participate (although limiting the group to real decision-makers and essential support staff could be conducive to serious talks).
More broadly, the disease means that international leaders, focused as they are on dramatic domestic issues, have little or no time to devote to conflicts or peace processes…
The disease could also affect multinational peacekeeping and security assistance efforts. In early March, the UN secretariat asked a group of nine peacekeeping troop contributors – including China and Italy – to suspend some or all unit rotations to blue helmet operations due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. UN operations have announced further limits to rotations since then, meaning that peacekeepers’ tours of duty will be extended for at least three months in tough mission settings such as the Central African Republic and South Sudan, potentially affecting their morale and effectiveness.’
(3) Risks to social order
‘COVID-19 could place great stress on societies and political systems, creating the potential for new outbreaks of violence. In the short term, the threat of disease is likely acting as a deterrent to popular unrest, as protesters avoid large gatherings. COVID-19’s emergence in China precipitated a decline in anti-Beijing protests in Hong Kong (although public discomfort with radical elements of the protest movement may also have been a factor). There has been a decline, too, in the numbers of protesters taking to the streets in Algeria to challenge government corruption. The Russian opposition largely acquiesced in the authorities’ move, ostensibly justified on health grounds, to block protests against President Vladimir Putin’s decision to rewrite the constitution to extend his tenure in office. At least one exception to this general caution occurred in Niger, where demonstrators took to the streets against rules barring protest, which the government extended by invoking COVID-19. Three civilians were killed by security forces on 15 March.
Yet the quiet in the streets may be a temporary and misleading phenomenon. The pandemic’s public health and economic consequences are liable to strain relations between governments and citizens, especially where health services buckle; preserving public order could prove challenging when security forces are overstretched and populations become increasingly frustrated with the government’s response to the disease….
More broadly, the disease’s catastrophic economic impact could well sow the seeds of future disorder. It could do so whether or not the countries in question have experienced major outbreaks of the disease, although the danger in those that have will be magnified. A global recession of as yet unknown scope lies ahead; pandemic-related transport restrictions will disrupt trade and food supplies; countless businesses will be forced to shut down; and unemployment levels are likely to soar.’
(4) Political exploitation of the crisis
‘Against this background of social pressures, there is ample room for political leaders to try to exploit COVID-19, either to solidify power at home or pursue their interests abroad…. Nonetheless, as the crisis goes on, some leaders could order restrictive measures that make public health sense at the peak of the crisis and then extend them in the hope of quashing dissent once the disease declines. Such measures could include indefinite bans on large public gatherings – which many governments have already instituted to stop community spread of COVID-19 – to prevent public protests. Here again there are precedents from West Africa’s Ebola crisis: local civil society groups and opposition parties claim that the authorities prohibited meetings for longer than necessary as a way of suppressing legitimate protests. A harbinger of what is to come may have appeared in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban asked parliament on 21 March to indefinitely extend a state of emergency that prescribes five-year prison sentences for those disseminating false information or obstructing the state’s crisis response….
… the crisis may create openings for jihadist groups to launch new offensives against weakened governments in Africa and the Middle East. To date, neither ISIS nor any of al-Qaeda’s various branches has displayed a clear strategic vision relating to the pandemic (although ISIS has circulated health guidance to its militants on how to deal with the disease based on sayings by the Prophet Muhammad).’
(5) A turning-point in major power relations?
‘The potential effects of COVID-19 on specific trouble spots is magnified by the fact that the global system was already in the midst of realignment…
In 2014, the U.S. took charge of a belated multilateral response to the West Africa Ebola crisis helped by countries ranging from the UK and France to China and Cuba. Today, the U.S. – whose international influence already had considerably weakened – has simultaneously mishandled its domestic response to COVID-19, failed to bring other nations together and stirred up international resentment. President Donald Trump has not only harped on the disease’s Chinese origins but also criticised the EU for bungling its containment.
China, by contrast, after having to cope with the consequences of the initial outbreak, its early and costly decision to hold back information, and its own uneven response, and having sought at times to blame the U.S. by waging an irresponsible misinformation campaign, now sees in the health crisis an opportunity to gain influence over other states through humanitarian gestures’.
(6) Opportunities to be siezed
‘While the warning signs associated with COVID-19 are significant, there are also glimmers of hope. The scale of the outbreak creates room for humanitarian gestures between rivals. The UAE has, for example, airlifted over 30 tonnes of humanitarian aid to Iran to deal with the disease (Bahrain, by contrast, took the opportunity to accuse the Islamic Republic of “biological aggression”).
(7) Potential crisis mitigation measures
‘Looking ahead, governments will have to decide whether to support more cooperative approaches to handling the crisis, not only in global public health terms but also as a political and security challenge. All leaders face pressure to focus on and spend money and political capital on domestic priorities, and in particular to ignore conflict risks in weak states that may seem hard to resolve or simply not important enough to worry about. But there will be a day after, and if the coming period is not dealt with wisely, it could be marked by major disruptions in already conflict-ridden areas, the eruption of new violence and a far more fragile multilateral system…. The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to be long and draining. It will make diplomacy, and especially crisis diplomacy, harder. But it is crucial to keep channels of communication – and a spirit of cooperation – intact in a period when the international system seems as ready as ever to fragment.’
(B) International Committee of the Red Cross: Cordelia Droege‘s post on ‘COVID-19 response in conflict zones hinges on respect for international humanitarian law‘ is here.
‘…the extreme vulnerability of people in conflict zones to COVID-19, the culmination of degraded or collapsed essential services such as water, sanitation, and health care, is in significant part the result of a disregard over many years of States’ and other belligerents’ obligations – as set out in international humanitarian law and international human rights law – towards populations under their control.
Now we are here, at a new crossroads, but one with familiar signposts. In the long term, a public health response to a pandemic and respect for fundamental legal protections go hand in hand. To illustrate this, the ICRC Legal Division has produced a basic reminder of the key provisions of international humanitarian law, relevant to the COVID-19 pandemic in conflict situations, that we must all keep close at hand when a pandemic hits countries at war.’
She then lists in clear, summary form those key IHL provisions (which concern both rights and responsibilities) in relation to:
- Medical personnel, provisions and transport
- Water supply
- Humanitarian relief
- Persons specifically at risk
- Internally displaced persons, migrants, asylum seekers and refugees
- Children and education
- Sanctions regimes and other restrictive measures
(C) Christine Bell has another helpful post over at Just Security on ‘COVID-19 and Violent Conflict: Responding to Predictable Unpredictability‘ here.
She draws on ongoing research from the Political Settlements Research Programme to identify ‘baseline understandings are likely to be key in designing the most effective responses to the COVID-19 pandemic in conflict-affected regions.’
The PS Research Programme also has a useful list of resources on Conflict, Development and Covid-19 here.
(D) In a previous series of posts I discussed the militarized response to Ebola – see here, here and here – and Diana Ojeda and Lina Pinto García have provided a chilling, illuminating commentary from Colombia on ‘The militarization of life under war, “post-conflict,” and the COVID-19 crisis‘ here.
(E) Finally – essentially – three thoughtful reflections on the dangerous work done by deploying (sic) the rhetoric of war to discuss the novel Coronavirus (see also my post here):
- Eve Fairbanks, ‘A pandemic is not a war‘, at HuffPost here;
- Adriano Iaria, ‘We are not at “war” with COVID-19: concerns from Italy’s “frontline”‘, at ICRC’s Humanitarian Law and Policy blog here;
- Federica Caso, ‘Are we at war? The rhetoric of war in the Coronavirus pandemic‘, at The Disorder of Things here.