Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 57, 25 March 2020

International report on COVID-19 and Conflict: Fragile States ill-prepared, More conflicts likely
Sourina Bej

In the news

On 24 March, the International Crisis Group (ICG) report, “COVID-19 and Conflict: Seven Trends to Watch” assessed the potential of the global outbreak of COVID-19 on fragile states, conflict-torn countries and conflict resolution mechanisms. Identifying seven trends, the report took stock of those caught in the midst of conflict and the consequences of the disease on humanitarian aid flows, peace operations, and diplomacy among the conflict parties. 

The major fallouts of the outbreak that the report concluded are: First, the vulnerability of the conflict-affected population will be compounded by mismanagement, corruption, or foreign sanctions making the countries ill-prepared to tackle COVID-19. Second, the conflict resolution mechanisms will be severely affected to the extent that travel restrictions for international mediation efforts have already been impaired as UN envoys in the Middle East are blocked from travelling, and regional organizations have suspended diplomatic initiatives. Last, the risk to the social order will be seen through a decrease in global unrests (that marked 2019), the regime controls over movements of people and riots, or xenophobic sentiments owing to  ‘human to human transmission’ of the disease. 

Issues at large 

2019 witnessed the emergence and worsening of conflicts across the globe that continued in 2020. Since 2019, Libya has been divided between the internationally recognized government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli and a rival government in the east by Khalifa Haftar. The situation in Gaza has been no different as Israel’s pushback on the Palestinian settlement question has an adverse result. Yemen witnessed the worst humanitarian crisis in 2018, and only through an aggressive international intervention, the situation was contained from deteriorating further. Yemen has become a critical fault line in the Middle East rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia. A December 2018 Stockholm Agreement fostered a fragile ceasefire and also prevented a famine, but since then, the conflict has broken out within the anti-Houthi front against the Hadi government. The turmoil in the Sahel, the influx of Rohingya refugees from Rakhine province in Myanmar to Bangladesh, the conflict in Idlib, and the subsequent flow of Syrian refugees in Turkey were the highlights of worsening conflicts and outmigration of the affected. 

An event that dominated the end of 2019 and the beginning of 2020 was the Afghan Peace deal between the US and the Taliban and the absent intra-afghan dialogue in Afghanistan. The above conflicts also have one common factor: staggering cases of COVID-19 in these countries. 

The lessons learnt through the Ebola outbreak in Africa highlight the primary intersection between political conflict and failing health capacities in containing an epidemic. Reviewing the 2014 Ebola outbreak in conflict-torn countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone reveals that Ebola spread was mainly due to the scepticism of the people about their governments long with attacks on hospitals and medics by armed combatants. Similarly, in Afghanistan, currently, the troop rotations have been paused in an effort to prevent the disease from spreading. The global rise in pandemic cases has shifted the focus of international organizations and the member countries from their commitment to the peace processes in Yemen, Libya and Syria to one’s domestic problems of COVID-19. In the absence of global commitments in conflict management, the crisis from the Middle East to Central Ameria will further worsen after the global pandemic ends.

In perspective

Along with possible deterioration of conflicts across the globe, the report throws caution that the human to human transmission will be difficult to contain once it impacts the refugees in the camps of Bangladesh and Turkey. The report mentions the scope for political exploitation by world leaders. But in an era of eroding strongholds of authoritarian leaders, how does the outbreak aid the power regimes? The case in point: The Russian President Vladimir Putin postponed the voting on the constitutional changes, thereby letting him remain in power till the crisis averted. The announcement comes in spite of Russia reporting the lowest number of coronavirus cases and deaths. Similarly, the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has indefinitely extended a state of emergency and Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (still remains to form a government) suspended all court proceedings thereby stalling the corruption charges that have tainted his image as a leader.  

Second, the use of total lockdown, army as the warriors in implementing social distancing and prison terms for those in the social gathering have disbanded the global protest movements like in Hongkong, Shaheen Bagh in India, and ‘Future for Friday’ protests. However, the use of state machinery to control has also led to the rise of a new curve of protests. For example, in Colombia, food trucks headed for Venezuela were looted as a sign of protest against the decision taken by both Bogotá and Caracas to close the Colombian-Venezuelan border for health reasons. Quarantined Brazilians have continued protests by banging pots and pans from their balconies against President Bolsanaro for calling the COVID-19 epidemic a media trick. 

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