Time to put armed conflict 'on lockdown'?

As politically-stable countries with established health systems strain under the pressure of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), international focus is shifting to consider the impact in more fragile states, many of which have not yet felt the full force of the virus. From the long-term impact of school closures, to lessons from previous outbreaks, we take a look at how COVID-19 is playing out in conflict-affected nations.

Calls for #GlobalCeasefire

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has urged warring parties across the world to lay down their weapons in support of the bigger battle against COVID-19 , and peacebuilding organizations like Crisis Action and the Alliance for Peacebuilding are supporting calls for a #GlobalCeasefire.

Guterres said health systems in war-ravaged countries have already reached the point of total collapse, while the few health workers who remain are also seen as targets.

“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” Guterres said. “It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.”

It appears some armed groups are listening.

In Colombia, guerrilla group the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN) announced a month-long, unilateral ceasefire and the Colombian government subsequently announced that two former ELN commanders would serve as “peace promoters”. In Cameroon, a separatist militia group (the Southern Cameroons Defence Forces) announced its plan to down its weapons for a fortnight so people can be tested for Coronavirus, and in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte announced a one-month unilateral ceasefire with rebels.

Social distancing in refugee camps

In places like Syrian displacement camps, there is significant concern that spread of Coronavirus is going undetected, due to a lack of testing and that already scarce resources will become further diminished.

"Safe hygiene is a massive challenge for people fleeing danger even under the best of circumstances,” said Kieren Barnes, Mercy Corps’ Country Director in Syria. “As aid workers, we are desperately anxious - the nightmare that over a million people on the run are living through can easily get a lot worse.”

The UNHCR has launched campaigns to share safety information and take action in refugee areas around the world, but are concerned outbreaks would put extraordinary strain on already fragile local healthcare services.

“Preventing or delaying outbreaks, particularly among the most vulnerable, is the most important action we can take right now,” said Ann Burton, Chief of UNHCR’s Public Health Section.

Outside of established refugee camps, concerns have also been raised for people living in informal urban settlements. The Institute of Development Studies (IDS) said in a statement that informal settlements face particular vulnerabilities, but that there can be can be a high level of local organization within informal settlements, often filling gaps in state provision or welfare. The group emphasizes though, that settlements unique dynamics means that reactions to COVID-19 must support local structures.

“Lessons from previous humanitarian and health crises in informal urban settlements, as well as non-urban settings, highlight that locally-led and adapted responses that take into account the diversity and complexity of urban settings are key to effectiveness and reducing harm,” the organization said.

Justice and rights in a time of COVID-19

As countries, states and major cities declare states of emergency, concerns for justice in a time of COVID-19 are elevated. Fernando Travesí, Executive director of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ) said that marginalized communities, especially in those emerging from conflict, will be particularly susceptible to the “ravages of the Coronavirus”.

“More broadly, the situation is bringing to the surface many other underlying social, political, and economic problems rooted in historical inequality, exclusion, and injustice,” said Travesi in a statement.

He also raised concerns over the possibility of authoritarian governments exploiting preventative measures and abusing their power, and said the pandemic should raise questions for those with the “luxury” of staying safe at home.

“The sense of vulnerability we feel today should make us empathetic to those living in far more fragile circumstances, whether close to home or further afield, and who will be most adversely affected by the epidemic.”

When education is a lost safety-net

Schools closing may feel like a temporary disruption in developed nations, but in fragile states the impact can be devastatingly long term. School closures can contribute to increased rates of sexual abuse and exploitation of children, teenage pregnancies (like in Sierra Leone where teenage pregnancy more than doubled to 14,000 during the Ebola crisis) and an increased risk of children being recruited into armed groups.

At least 630 million children are currently out of school in developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the Global Partnership for Education (PME). The organization has pledged $250 million to help mitigate disruptions caused by the pandemic on and last week granted $8.8 million to UNICEF for education plans in 87 countries.

"If we do not act now to support education systems, millions of vulnerable children, especially the poorest girls, may not be able to resume their studies once the crisis is over,” said Julia Gillard, Chair of PME.

Healthcare lessons from the past

Despite the clinical response to COVID-19 in fragile states facing a shortage of hospital beds and medical supplies, this is not the first time nations have faced outbreaks. Strategies implemented after the Ebola crises may help with the current crises, including the leadership of the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), which was established in 2017.

Currently Africa CDC, an organ of the African Union (AU), is provided training for laboratories across the continent, supported by organizations like Nigeria’s Centre for Disease Control and the Ethiopian Public Health Institute.

Berkeley economist Edward Miguel said this experience with Ebola may alter the way COVID-19 will affect areas across the continent, as will differing age demographics and lifestyle.

“Even though Africa is rapidly urbanizing, a large share of the population in many countries still lives in rural areas,” Miguel said. “That may be a situation in which social distancing is pretty natural.”

United States Institute of Peace exert Aly Verjee points out four key lessons the international community can learn from the fight against polio in Nigeria, Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, HIV/AIDS, and Yellow Fever in Darfur.

Peacebuilding goes digital

Peacebuilders in conflict zones, usually in the business of bringing people together, have had to adapt rapidly to using online platforms. Organizations and NGO’s already utilizing technology are stepping up, with tech-savvy groups like Build Up developing COVID-10 quick online adaptations for trainings and programs in Burkina Faso, Syria, and Yemen.

Other examples include a “real or not” Facebook messenger chat bot from conflict-focused group Myanmar ICT for Development Organization, which is now debunking Coronavirus misinformation, and a Facebook group sharing 3D printing designs for protective devices to help fight COVID-19.

“In times of crisis, some people rise to their best, and every day I’m inspired by the ingenious and humane responses we’re seeing across communities finding new ways to connect,” said Build Up director Helena Puig Larrauri in a recent blog.

Want to build peace from home? Take a look at our recent story on things you can do to foster peace without even stepping outside.

Photos, in order of appearance:



Asif Baloch/Twitter

European Commission DG ECHO/Flickr


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